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All in-person court hearings halted statewide as COVID-19 rages in SC

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South Carolina's chief justice, Donald Beatty, ordered a halt to all in-person court proceedings, effective Jan. 11, 2021. File/Mary Ann Chastain/AP

COLUMBIA — S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty again ordered a halt to in-person court hearings statewide, another significant hitch to the legal system as the state has failed to beat back a raging surge in coronavirus infections.

Beatty's edict, which takes effect Monday and covers all criminal and civil court matters, reverses his September decision that permitted judges to open up their local courtrooms. In taking that action, Beatty stressed the courts' duty to afford defendants their constitutional rights to a speedy resolution of their cases. 

Now, Beatty is pointing to the latest spike in cases in large swaths of the state. More than 48,000 have been infected just in the past two weeks, with testing infection rates as high as 30 percent — five percent of tests or fewer returning positive results is a good sign the virus' spread is slowing, researchers say.

Health officials point to an uptick in gatherings around the holidays as a likely cause for the surge that may not relent for weeks.

That outlook requires more "unprecedented changes to ordinary court operations," Beatty wrote in his order, which was distributed to court officials Wednesday evening.

Beatty's order allows hearings covering emergency bond matters or protection orders in the state's criminal courts, with a similar allowance for emergencies in family court. Beatty again urged local judges to conduct hearings remotely, whenever possible.  

Overall, the virus in South Carolina has infected more than 306,000. As of Wednesday, the contagion has killed 5,139 in the state.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

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