Cases moving through West Virginia’s judicial system may turn to Wi-Fi and video conferencing for an undetermined amount of time due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The West Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday issued a protocol encouraging judicial officers to postpone proceedings that aren’t time sensitive and to use available technology, including conference calls and video conferencing, as much as possible.
The court’s goal was to keep the Mountain State’s court system open and functioning as normally as possible while minimizing person-to-person contact, Chief Justice Tim Armstead said in a news release Thursday.
“We want to keep courts open, but we want to do all we can to keep people safe,” Armstead said. “In addition to the protocol for employees, the court also is issuing guidance intended to ensure the safety of litigants and the public.”
Anyone with questions about a given case is encouraged to call the judge presiding over their case.
The court also established a special sick leave for employees who meet certain conditions, but the court didn’t release those conditions.
Out-of-state travel for judicial employees also was temporarily canceled unless approved by court Administrative Director Joe Armstrong.
The state Supreme Court ordered that court officials can order someone to leave a courthouse if they exhibit suspected symptoms of the coronavirus, and justices encouraged attorneys and other parties who may have the virus to contact the judges relevant to their cases for how to proceed with any scheduled hearings.
However, the court also warned that anyone who fraudulently uses the protocols to affect court proceedings for personal gain could be found in contempt of court and face relevant penalties or sanctions. Attorneys who exploit the protocols would be subject to referral to the West Virginia Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
The Supreme Court also postponed hearings that were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday due to concerns about the virus.
The court had been scheduled to hear arguments in three cases each day. The cases on Wednesday were going to be heard at Braxton County High School as part of the Legal Advancement for West Virginia Students program. The justices rescheduled the LAWS trip to Braxton County to the fall.
The court also postponed training sessions for the West Virginia Court Improvement Program that were set to take place in Bridgeport, Huntington and Beckley later this month and in early April. No new dates were announced Friday.
In federal court Friday, Chief Judge Thomas E. Johnston ordered that all criminal and civil trials and grand jury proceedings in the Southern District of West Virginia effectively were postponed for an indefinite amount of time, Southern District Court Clerk Rory Perry said in a media release Friday.
In the order, Johnston said he would either lift the postponement or extend it by March 27.
Southern District Courthouses are located in Parkersburg, Charleston, Huntington, Beckley and Bluefield.
“Throughout the nation, state and local officials have taken measures to close schools and limit public gatherings in order to minimize the transmission of the disease among the general population,” Johnston said in the order. “Although there are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in West Virginia, there is also inadequate testing available at this time to monitor the spread of the disease, and state officials have taken precautionary measures to close public schools and limit large gatherings in the interest of protecting the public from the spread of the outbreak.”