On January 11, 2021, Lisa Arthur, President of the GBA and Grant Sigmon, Chair of the GBA’s Coronavirus Response Committee, met with members of the Leadership Team to discuss the GBA survey results. GBA members’ concerns related to COVID, as set forth in the survey responses, were presented anonymously to the Leadership Team. As a result of that meeting, we are providing the following information to guide your understanding and to address common themes in the survey responses. Judge Vincent, who is also a member of the Leadership Team, co-authored this article and will be speaking at our February membership meeting to address these topics.
Who makes decisions at the local level about courthouse operations during COVID?
The Leadership Team, comprised of Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Craig, Chief District Court Judge Vincent, elected District Attorney Avery Crump, elected Public Defender John Nieman, and elected Clerk of Court Lisa Johnson-Tonkins, are tasked with making decisions about COVID operations. However, not all decisions can be made by this body. Some decisions are made by the Administrative Office of the Courts (hereinafter “AOC”) or the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Also, the Leadership Team is not a policy-setting board. They strive to reach consensus among the group because of the intertwining of all their departments; however, policies and procedures remain the responsibility of the elected officials who comprise the committee. Thus, the ultimate decision on how to run Superior Court rests with Judge Craig; for District Court, Judge Vincent; for operations of the Clerk, the Clerk of Court Lisa Johnson-Tonkins; for the District Attorney’s office, Avery Crump; and John Nieman for the Public Defender’s office. All members of the Leadership Team have received Executive Leadership training by the North Carolina School of Government.
Why is there not a designated member of the private bar as a formal part of the Leadership Team?
It would be impractical to involve a member of the private bar when most decisions are made by the Leadership Team emergently and frequently. In addition, the AOC provides a recommended framework concerning the composition of the Leadership Team which our Judicial District implemented by including the aforementioned elected officials. However, the Leadership Team is available to hear and consider opinions from the private bar and views GBA members as always having “a seat at the table.” Members of the private bar should feel free to raise questions or concerns with members of the Leadership Team directly or communicate with Lisa or Grant and we will make sure that your questions or concerns are addressed.
Why can the courthouse not release the names of individuals who have COVID?
Many of you raised the point that notifications about COVID exposure are meaningless when the person with COVID cannot be identified. Unfortunately, the Leadership Team cannot release the identities of individuals with COVID due to multiple privacy laws, HIPAA regulations, and a specific directive from the AOC. However, everyone is encouraged to use the following contact tracing app from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, called “SlowCOVIDNC,” which should assist in these efforts. The more people use it, the better we can isolate after exposure and prevent the spread.
Apple App Store:
What can we do about the mask rule not being enforced or social distancing not being followed?
If you raised a concern about a specific courtroom or area of the courthouse in the survey, it has been communicated to the Leadership Team and is being addressed. In the future, we cannot correct these issues unless we all communicate about problems. If you see a problem, please say something. The Leadership Team includes representatives from most areas in the courthouse. If it’s about a courthouse employee, please say something to your GBA leaders or a member of the Leadership Team. If it is another member of the private bar, consider addressing the issue with that individual or raising it with us. If it is a courthouse patron, let us know the specifics: date, time, area of the courthouse and we will address it. We need your help in ensuring that everyone is following the rules.
Can any changes be made to the courthouse building to prevent the spread of COVID?
The courthouse building is funded and managed by the county. The county owns the physical facility and is solely responsible for security. The court system’s relationship with the county, governed by statute, is akin to a landlord-tenant relationship; just like most tenants, the court system does not have specific control over many of the aspects of pandemic response. Changing the HVAC system or any structural change is not feasible at this time. The courtrooms and Clerk’s office have implemented plexiglass screens and the Leadership Team is currently evaluating if there are ways to improve remote hearings. Resources are limited, but the Leadership Team is doing everything it can to make the courthouse as safe of an environment as possible.
Are jury trials ever going to resume and if so, how will they be safe?
The Leadership Team is carefully evaluating this question and hopes to resume jury trials as soon as they are able to safely do so. This decision will not be made lightly, but we all understand the need for the courthouse to remain operational. Please pay attention to the Administrative Orders as they are released.
What can be done about the irregularity of courthouse shutdowns?
Not much. We are in an unprecedented situation. The Leadership Team has to make the difficult decision to shut down the courthouse when it is in the best interests of the courthouse employees and the public.
How is the courthouse cleaned to prevent the spread of COVID?
Courtrooms are cleaned daily in high touch areas with recommended and approved commercial grade products to eradicate the virus and other harmful bacteria and germs.
Where can I go to find out more information about the courthouse during COVID?
The GBA website has information related to COVID closures and exposures. All GBA members also receive emails regularly with courthouse notifications.