By now most states and territories have ordered their courts to limit in-person proceedings with the exception of “essential services” and “urgent matters,” and an additional 14 states have given their lower courts the authority to do that. But what exactly does that mean?
“Those matters which were not initially considered to be essential at the start of this crisis may slowly creep into that category as the crisis lingers on and trials and other matters await resolution,” said Rhode Island State Court Administrator J. Joseph Baxter (left), who also serves as vice chair of NCSC’s board of directors and president of the Conference of State Court Administrators.
A review of the orders shows that in most states, essential services and urgent matters encompass five areas:
- The protection of vulnerable people, such as elders, children and those who suffer from disabilities;
- Preliminary hearings, bail hearings and arraignments for criminal defendants;
- Hearings related to quarantine orders and other public health-related matters; and
- Protection orders for women and others who fear for their safety;
- Search warrants and other law enforcement actions.
The issuing of these orders is just one measure courts are taking to reduce the number of people who go to courthouses, in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
In the days since state supreme courts issued these orders, there has been some confusion about what constitutes essential services in states that have not spelled that out.
Virginia, for example, was quick to postpone “non-essential, non-emergency” in-person proceedings, but some judges viewed evictions as essential proceedings. The Virginia Supreme Court then spelled out in a follow-up order that new eviction cases are not essential proceedings.
Court officials say states should constantly reevaluate their reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Most of us have taken the first bold steps to implement emergency protocols in our respective jurisdictions," Baxter said. "The next steps may require us to come up with ways of expanding access to our courts, both with respect to case types and litigants, in this world of social distancing.”