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Courts are scrambling to address coronavirus

coronavirus_mainCourts across Virginia have been forced to rapidly escalate their planning and communication processes over the past two weeks in an effort to avoid public gatherings and therefore to contain the spread of the new coronavirus,

Rapidly changing policies and sched­ules exposed the independent nature of state courts, with each court issuing sep­arate announcements, and lawyers and litigants sometimes struggling to keep up with the changes.

The Supreme Court of Virginia on March 16 declared a judicial emergency and di­rected courts to continue all civil, traffic and criminal matters through April 6. Ex­ceptions included quarantine or isolation matters, arraignments, bail reviews, pro­tective order cases, emergency child cus­tody or protection cases and civil commit­ment hearings.

Judges had discretion about ongoing jury trials and cases where a defendant was incarcerated.

Not all courts followed the lead exactly, some reports indicated. But as of March 19, with additional announcements, con­fusion seemed to have abated.

On March 18, the Supreme Court no­tified attorneys scheduled to argue to writ panels on March 31 that they have a choice: argument by telephone, or waiving argument, according to a web post by ap­pellate attorney Steven Emmert. The court reportedly gave each such advocate until March 24 to notify the Chief Staff Attorney.

The Court of Appeals of Virginia de­termined to conduct all hearings by teleconference through at least June 30. The court, on March 18, announced other changes, including en­couragement of electronic filing and use of a drop box for filing paper documents.

The buildings housing the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals were closed to the general public as of March 16.

Local courts act independently

Local trial courts at first used a variety of meth­ods to give notice of their policy and schedule changes. The word came by social media, by local bar associa­tion emails and by announcements on local govern­ment websites.

The Supreme Court established a list of announcements accessible through the website of Virginia’s Judicial Sys­tem. As of March 13, the only post concerned driver’s li­cense ceremonies in Prince William County. But by March 19, the list had grown to 46 pages of court announcements.

Still, some lawyers struggled to keep up with piece­meal court responses. Ann H. Kloeckner, executive direc­tor of Legal Aid Works in Fredericksburg, said her office handles cases in 51 courts in 17 localities. She said her staff had to scramble to give clients accurate informa­tion on whether to go to court or not.

“This is just exposing the fiercely independent nature of each court,” she said. When the Supreme Court issued its judicial emergency order March 16, she thought it would provide some breathing room and consistency among the courts.

“Almost from the moment that order was entered, courts were doing other stuff,” she said. “We spent much of the day trying to get information from frazzled court clerks,” she said March 17.

Communication was a large part of the problem, she said.

“I don’t mind that there are 51 ways to do something. It would be great if each of those 51 had a protocol that was transparent. Not just to a legal aid office, but to pro se litigants as well,” Kloeckner said.

Not everyone had such difficulties.

Alison M. McKee, president of the Virginia Bar Asso­ciation, said March 18 she had heard no criticism of the court closings and communications process.

“People are just trying to do the best they can under the circumstances,” she said. “This is uncharted waters for all of us.”

Federal courts

Federal courts regularly issued new updates on their websites.

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals postponed oral argument sessions that had been set for March 17-20 and for April 7. Paper filings were discouraged, the court building in Richmond was closed to the public and the clerk’s office was available only by phone.

The Eastern District Court posted announcements on its homepage on March 10, 12, 13 and 16. The March 16 notice said all criminal and civil proceedings were sus­pended through March 31 except for critical or emergen­cy matters and any proceeding expressly excepted by the presiding judge.

The Western District Court on March 16 postponed all in-person criminal, civil and bankruptcy proceedings through March 31, unless a presiding judge directed oth­erwise. In a March 18 order, the court restricted access to the Poff Federal Building in Roanoke.

Eastern and Western District Bankruptcy Court Sec­tion 341 meetings were suspended through April 10.

Workers’ Compensation

The Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission said all in-person commission hearings and mediations had been cancelled from March 17 through March 31.

However, as of March 19, the commission remained open for all other business and therefore there was no change at that time in policy or procedure with regard to timely filing, statutes of limitation, or other statutory- or rule-based time limitations, the VWC said.

Bar activities

The Virginia Trial Lawyers Association on March 12 announced it would convert its annual convention at The Greenbrier to a “virtual convention” with online sessions.

“Over the last 24 hours we have been able to pull to­gether the resources necessary to hold the first fully vir­tual convention of any statewide bar association in the state,” the VTLA said in its March 12 notice.

The Virginia State Bar cancelled its April 3 Solo & Small-Firm Practitioner Forum on the Eastern Shore.

“The functions of the Bar are being carried out under evolving protocols,” a VSB notice read.

“As a result of this health crisis, the Virginia State Bar must cancel all meetings and events, with very limited exceptions. The status of meetings will continue to be up­dated on the events page of the VSB website,” the VSB said.

The opening of registration for the VSB annual meeting in Virginia Beach was delayed to April 15, the VSB said.

“We will continue to evaluate whether to cancel, post­pone, hold electronically, or hold as scheduled other meet­ings on an ongoing basis. We will work to reschedule meet­ings. Thank you for your understanding,” the VSB said.

The Virginia Bar Association on March 16 temporarily suspended use of its downtown Richmond office space by members. As of March 18, the VBA was planning virtual forums for members to share information about practice amid the virus response.

The Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers cancelled its April 17 spring seminar in Arlington. The group said the Arlington presentations would be moved to the Sept. 17-18 annual meeting and fall CLE in Vir­ginia Beach if possible.