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Coronavirus is impacting South Carolina's court system. Here's how

  • Updated
The Charleston County Courthouse (copy)

Charleston County Courthouse. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The new strain of the coronavirus poses a particular challenge for South Carolina's courts. 

The virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, has spread to several states and, as of Friday, there were 12 cases, six presumptive and six confirmed, in the Palmetto State. Concerns about the virus have prompted state court officials to take action. 

S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty took several actions on Friday regarding the high court and lower courts in the Columbia.

And in Charleston County, officials determined all jury trials will be postponed next week and for the week of March 23, according to an announcement on Friday. Jurors summoned for those weeks are excused and shouldn't report for duty. 

During that time, family court will only handle emergencies and statutorily mandated hearings, such as domestic abuse proceedings, juvenile detention and bench warrant hearings, officials said. 

Nonjury hearings in circuit court also will be postponed next week, officials said. Nonjury hearings for the week of March 23 are scheduled to proceed, but the situation will be reassessed as needed. 

"During this two-week period, we will continue to monitor the situation and will update as warranted," officials said. "For Circuit Court jury service after March 23, please contact 843-958-5068 or visit the jury service tab on the Charleston County Clerk of Court website for updated information."

Charleston County Public Defender Ashley Pennington said he was at a jury selection on Monday and as of that time there didn't seem to be a lot of concerns among potential jurors over getting sick. None asked to be excused on those grounds.

But Pennington said that because of the quickly evolving situation, those concerns may have developed as the week progressed. 

"I really do think people are anxious and wondering," Pennington said. 

Jurors are sequestered together and held in small rooms, he said, adding "that's going to be a concern." 

On Friday, public defenders from around South Carolina met in Columbia, Pennington said. The meeting was not convened expressly to discuss the coronavirus, but discussion on the topic took place. 

According to information conveyed at that meeting, Beatty is gathering information on the virus and its possible impact to the state court system. 

For the time being, the chief justice has authorized local administrative judges and court clerks to meet and make decisions as they see fit for their jurisdictions, Pennington said. 

"What I’m seeing is that court leadership is following this very closely," he said. "I expect more policies and decisions will be forthcoming."

Mark Peper, a Charleston attorney, also said that he was at jury selection on Monday and didn't hear any jurors express concerns about the virus that day, but that he understands why jurors would be worried. 

"The jury is literally together the entire day," Peper said. "I think it's a valid concern." 

Tiffany Norton, a spokeswoman for Dorchester County, said no jury panels are reporting as of Monday. 

The county clerk of court's office has contacted jurors and cancelled their service, Norton said. 

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"This is due to all civil jury matters that were schedule for next week being resolved," she said. "There are no jury panels scheduled for the week of March 23. As of this time no jurors have expressed these concerns to the Clerk of Court."

Family court and circuit court proceedings will take place as scheduled," Norton said. 

"Please be assured that we have been and will continue working closely with our judges and South Carolina Court Administration," said Cheryl Graham, Dorchester County Clerk of Court, in a statement. "As Clerk of Court for Dorchester County the health and welfare of the county employees, court staff and the citizens are of the utmost importance.”

On Friday, officials implemented new procedures for the S.C. Court of Appeals.

"In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court of Appeals is implementing a policy that only attorneys, litigants, and necessary staff may attend oral argument," according to the order. "Spectators and visitors will not be permitted during court proceedings."

Operations at Richland County Courthouse have been impacted after officials found that someone at the courthouse "had indirect contact with the coronavirus," according to a message from S.C. Supreme Court Cheif Justice Donald Beatty. 

"Therefore, out of an abundance of caution, I have ordered court operations at the Richland County Courthouse to be streamlined," Beatty said. "I believe this decision to be in the best interest of litigants, attorneys, employees, and the public. The order shall remain in effect until further notice.”

All jury trials at the courthouse have been postponed, according to the order. Other proceedings, like hearings and non-jury trials, will still be held, but with only attorneys, their clients and necessary witnesses present. 

Only essential courthouse personnel will report to work, the chief justice said. 

Beginning on Friday, Richland County Family Court will only hear emergency matters such as hearings on emergency protective custody, juvenile detention, bench warrants and protective orders for incidents of domestic abuse, according to another order.

Beatty also sent memos to officials in the state's criminal, civil, summary, magistrate and family courts stating that state court authorities are actively monitoring the situation and that "county employees working within the Unified Judicial System should follow the decisions made by the respective county government officials with regard to office and facility closings."

"Under present conditions, courts can and should remain operational and are projected to be able to do so," Beatty said. "As the situation continues to develop, we will provide further information if and when circumstances so warrant."

Courthouses should stay open in order to accept legal filings, payments, hold emergency hearings and send necessary information to law enforcement agencies, he said. Court dates can be rescheduled "as is necessary and prudent." 

If local court officials believe canceling court for more than two weeks is needed, they will have to seek an order from Beatty. 

"To the extent possible and circumstances warrant, hearings that can be held by video may be held remotely," the chief justice said. "Telephonic hearings may be held remotely as a last resort."

Beatty also said litigants should be excused from attending routine hearings like status conferences. 

"Requests for jury excuses due to claimed illness or fear of exposure should be liberally considered and any juror claiming to have flu-like symptoms should be excused from service until at least 14 days after the symptoms have abated," he said. "Jury pools and jury trials should be held at the discretion of the trial judge. Decisions to postpone jury trials or draws should be made after consultation with the clerk of court, Chief Judges for Administrative purposes and the trial judge, with notice provided to Court Administration."

The chief justice also called for cross-training of employees on critical functions, if needed, and for posting signage directing people to alternate locations where filings and payments can be made if a courthouse has to be closed.

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

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