Mecklenburg County Courthouse Tries To Balance Safety, Accessibility As Services Expand
How do you provide safe access to a courthouse during a pandemic? That’s the question officials across the state have been trying to answer since the outbreak of the coronavirus.
The Charlotte Observer reported last week that a Mecklenburg County Courthouse employee tested positive for the coronavirus.
Although there are still restrictions on courthouse operations, last month North Carolina Chief Justice Cheri Beasley did give districts the greenlight to slowly expand services. That begins Monday. However each courthouse will look a little different, and it will be awhile before things return to normal in Mecklenburg County.
The days of large clusters of people waiting to pile into a courtroom or being sandwiched shoulder to shoulder on a crowded pew are currently a thing of the past in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse.
"On an average month prior to COVID-19, we had 70,000 visitors to the courthouse," said Elizabeth Trosch, the chief District Court judge for the 26th Judicial District that includes Mecklenburg. "That’s a lot. We can’t have 70,000 people coming in and out of the courthouse in June, July or August."
Instead, the Mecklenburg County Courthouse, like so many in the state, is trying to figure out how to resolve cases while adhering to best social distancing practices. Courtrooms that typically hold 100 to 150 people will instead have a capacity of 24. And there will be smaller more organized dockets.
"So the days of a docket of 50 or 100 or more people piling in for a 9 o’clock calendar call are over, " Trosch said. "Now we are doing time specific calendaring meaning one case is scheduled at 9, the next one at 9:30. In other settings like in the criminal administrative court where felony pleas will be handled, we’re doing block scheduling."
Trosch said it’s also recommended and strongly encouraged that everyone coming to court wears a face covering, although it’s not mandatory.
Other changes include six-foot intervals marked on benches and floors and hand sanitizer readily available in high-traffic areas as well as in every courtroom.
"There will be Plexiglas barriers on the bench in front the clerk, on the counsel tables to separate the attorney from the client, and we will have enhanced cleaning and sanitizing services throughout the day," she said.
Because of the lower number of people, rescheduled cases and the continued addition of virtual hearings, Trosch said, there will not be an avalanche of people flooding the courthouse. But, she said, the backlog of cases is significant, and it’s something that’s going to take time to sort through.
"It’s in the thousands and thousands ... because of the volume of certain case types," Trosch said.
Criminal defense attorney Darlene Harris is trying to help her clients make sense of that backlog.
Harris is based in Charlotte but has clients in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. On top of staying up to date on her cases, she’s having to make lots of calls to district attorneys' offices and clerks to make sure that she's following the right rules when she’s going to a particular courthouse.
"Which is frustrating because I have to spend time chasing people down and making sure I’m doing what’s right in each county," Harris said.
It’s also frustrating, she said, because as much as she wants to do right by her clients, there’s an increased risk of exposure visiting a courthouse.
"But I also want my client who is sitting in jail to have his case moved to the grand jury," Harris said. "So it’s a really hard space for me to be in. I don’t want to be in large groups of people, but I also don’t want my client sitting in jail because of this."
Both Trosch and Harris see the value in virtual hearings when possible. However, both worry about the accessibility to reliable internet to attend those hearings. Harris points out there have been times in recent weeks when her own internet was unreliable or down because of power outages due to storms.
"I’ve had to go to my mom’s house to do hearings because I didn’t have internet. That’s just me at least having the privilege of being able to go to my mom’s house," she said. "A lot of people don’t have that privilege. I think it’s an option to defnitely consider and one we should try to do but keep it in mind that for a lot of people it’s not an option."
Then there’s the issue of being able to do something that’s usually a given in a courtroom — being close enough to pass along a message that’s only intended for her client.
"I’m thinking about how I will communicate with my clients? I want them six feet away, but how do I maintain attorney client privilege with someone that's six feet away?"
That’s a question with no clear answer at the moment. At least one thing is certain: Jury trials in the state will not be held until at least August. That will be a whole other can of worms for the courts and attorneys to figure out.
Trosch says while the court is still navigating through this slow expansion of operations, it's exciting in some ways.
"It’s giving us a chance to really evaluate why we do some of things we do and whether that has to continue and what we can do differently," she said.
In other ways, Trosch said, it’s really stressful.
The intricacies that go into making court accessible to the public on a good day can be complicated, let alone in the middle of a pandemic.
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