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COVID 19 and the Jury Trial in North Carolina

On March 13, 2020, North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley essentially suspended any and all jury trials (other than those that were already empaneled) in the entire state of North Carolina for a minimum of thirty days. Now, five months later, jury trials have still not resumed anywhere in North Carolina. In fact, as of Chief Justice Beasley’s most recent Order dated August 24, 2020, no jury trials will resume prior to October 1, 2020.

Additionally, prior to jury trials being able to resume, Chief Justice Beasley has required that each District’s Resident Superior Court Judge must present her with a formal Jury Trial Resumption Plan by the end of September 2020. To give you some idea as to the scope of this undertaking, there are 41 separate Judicial Districts in North Carolina. Additionally, the Resident Superior Court Judge may even require a separate plan for District Court if it is deemed necessary.

At a minimum, each Jury Trial Resumption Plan must include several required hurdles before a Plan will even be considered for approval. Most interesting to me is that there is no requirement that jury trials be held at the courthouse. The Order allows for an “alternate facility to be used for court operations.” Personally, I recently attended a hearing in Lincoln County District Court. The hearing itself was conducted not in the Lincoln County Courthouse, but rather across the street in the James W. Warren Citizens Center. I must admit it was very well run and felt very safe, which is great for a hearing, but it also did not have the same somber feel that I believe necessary for a jury trial. We were essentially in a gym with the bleachers pushed back like in a high school gym with socially distant spaced chairs on marked tape on the floor and the Clerk set up at a table on the stage and the Judge at his own card table.

A full list of all the Jury Trial Resumption Plan requirements can be found at nccourts.org. However, even if a Plan meets all the requirements, it must be signed off on by the Resident District Court Judge, the District Attorney, the Public Defender, the Clerk of Superior Court, the Sheriff, and a Public Health Director before being approved by Chief Justice Beasley.

I fully anticipate the return of criminal jury trials before civil jury trials since there is a strong possibility of due process violations in criminal matters, particularly where the accused is incarcerated. I also expect there will be a learning curve as things start to move back to “normal.” I do want to commend the people who are working at the courthouses across North Carolina every day as their continued operations are crucial to our judicial system and it has not been easy for anyone. However, I also do not want to discourage anyone from pursuing justice in their matter because they are discouraged about how long the process will take. If you have any questions about your particular case or want to see if we can help, please call us at the Law Offices of Jason E. Taylor. Stay Healthy!

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