As Virginia’s judicial emergency order nears expiration, local courts will resume some operations next week, albeit with limits to the number of people allowed in a courtroom.
In May, the Supreme Court of Virginia extended its judicial emergency through June 7, continuing all civil and non-emergency criminal hearings beyond that date. Jury trials have been extended “until further notice,” with no date given.
For more than a year, the Charlottesville Circuit Court and clerk’s office have been operating in the Levy Opera House and Jessup building, respectively, as their old facility undergoes refurbishment and expansion. These temporary spaces are smaller than the old location, according to Llezelle Dugger, the city’s circuit court clerk, making social distancing a challenge.
In a recent order, Judge Richard E. Moore detailed the city circuit court plan, which involves limiting those allowed in a courtroom to involved parties, court staff, attorneys, necessary witnesses and members of the press.
These individuals will be expected to have their temperature taken, wear masks, sanitize their hands and not sit within 10 feet of each other. The pews within the courtroom have been taped off accordingly, with four gallery seating spots clearly marked.
“One of the things [Moore] wants people to understand is that, as we open up our courtroom, the restrictions and the safety code roles are going to increase because now we’re going to be with other people and people who don’t see each other regularly,” Dugger said. “In a sense, it’s sort of a misnomer to say we’re opening up when, actually, we’re probably going to end up with putting more restrictions in place just so we can open up.”
Before entering the courtroom, people will be asked a variety of questions about their health and behavior in the last 14 days, including: have they traveled out of the country; have they or someone they live with been sick or diagnosed as having COVID-19; experienced shortness of breath, fever or cough; or been directed to self-quarantine.
Parties not allowed into the courtroom for health reasons will be required to contact the clerk’s office and schedule a new hearing date.
Due to space limitations, the Charlottesville circuit court clerk’s office will remain open by appointment only, a decision made with public safety in mind, Dugger said.
“Our office is very condensed right now, and it’s virtually impossible for us to have more than two members of the public present at a time and maintain a 6-foot distance,” Dugger said. “And so we have made the decision to keep the office open by appointments only, which can be made by calling the office ahead of time.”
Dugger said processes for real estate transfers and marriage licenses have stayed pretty much the same, though the court has limited the number of appointments per day for these services.
According to Dugger, some of the outlying localities’ clerk’s offices have halted approving marriage licenses for couples that don’t reside in the locality.
“People don’t realize this, but out in the rural areas, a lot of the deputy clerks are over 60 and 70 years old, and so you’re talking about an at-risk population,” Dugger said. “So we’ve run into a bunch of folks from outside our area looking for marriage licenses, which is fine — we’re happy to help them out.”
Safety restrictions at the larger Albemarle County Circuit Court are not as strict as in the city.
A maximum of 12 people, not including those at the counsel tables, will be allowed in the courtroom, according to an order signed by Judge Cheryl Higgins. As in the city, people will have their temperature taken and are expected to wear masks and sit six feet or more apart.
Similarly, starting June 8, the county clerk’s office will reopen to the public, with mask and social distancing requirements in place.
In a memo, Jon Zug, Albemarle’s circuit court clerk, details new rules for opening up, including limits to how many people can be present in each of the building’s rooms.
Zug said he plans to post the memo publicly closer to the June 8 reopening.
Just as in the city, Zug said the county clerk’s office has not seen any significant drop in real estate transfers and marriage licenses. In particular, Zug said the county has seen an increase in e-recording, a process by which legal documents can be submitted digitally.
“Just last week, we had a day where e-recordings surpassed mail submissions by 10 times, which has never happened before,” he said. “Personally, I hope e-recording submissions continue to stay at this rate because it makes things quicker on our end.”
Because both the city and county have seen little decrease in tax revenue from real estate transfers, both Dugger and Zug said revenue projections for the courts are looking sustainable.