Court system works to adapt to COVID-19

Published 5:24 pm Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Lincoln County-Brookhaven Government Complex — which houses city and county offices and courtrooms — will remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, authorities said.

“Even during a pandemic, based on the Constitution, the courts must remain open and able to hold the necessary proceedings to protect the citizens’ rights,” Circuit Judge Michael Taylor said Wednesday in a joint statement with Circuit Judge David Strong. “The role the court plays in our community is important in that we don’t hold court strictly for bureaucratic or financial reasons but to help the public with issues others lack the authority to handle. The court must assist the community in maintaining order and operate at a level to ensure due process.”

Emergency Management Director Clifford Galey said city and county offices will remain open within the courthouse on South First Street, but visitors will notice workers adapting to the COVID-19 event by possibly wearing gloves and sanitizing work stations and doors more often.

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Taylor said several changes and restrictions are in effect for the 14th Circuit District Court, which includes Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties.

They will be in place going forward until at least May 18 or until further instruction from the court, he said.

All circuit court scheduled will be canceled until at least March 30 and all court terms will be pretermitted — or abandoned — until May 18. Cases set for jury trial will be continued until the next term of court for that county and judge beyond May 18.

Those affected by these changes are asked to contact the court administrator regarding scheduling of cases other than trial. Priority of cases will be bonds, bench warrants, pleas, sentencing hearings and revocations.

“Cases will be set at time specific settings instead of general docket call days that will allow us to remain compliant with the Supreme Court administrative orders and the Center for Disease Control guidelines,” he said.

Civil motions will be reset to dates and times that will allow the court to remain compliant with the Supreme Court administrative orders and the CDC guidelines.

The Lincoln County grand jury will be rescheduled.

The 14th Circuit District Drug Court program will be scheduled independent of other court settings. Drug court graduation will be rescheduled.

Taylor said that it was important to take public health concerns into account in the courtroom because in most cases, people don’t have a choice about attending.

“If we have court and we set a case, people have to come,” he said. “That’s different from deciding you want to go to the grocery store, deciding you want to take a risk. We have to be careful about making people come. Anyone that has a court case that has an issue or has a question about a medical condition or about their travel history should call the clerk of that particular court before showing up.”

Chief Justice Michael K. Randolph of the Mississippi Supreme Court released three emergency administrative orders state-wide to courts to address health concerns due to COVID-19.

Judges are ordered to limit all court gatherings to no more than 50 people, and they should not require anyone to travel through an infected area. Judges are given discretion to postpone trials and to modify the scheduling of drug testing and home-supervision visits for the next 60 days.

The order also requires anyone — including witnesses, jurors, attorneys and other parties — who has traveled through an area with confirmed coronavirus cases to contact the court clerk by telephone before coming to that court.

Taylor noted that, while the courts won’t have juries for a while because of the virus, much of the courts work does not involve a jury trial, and other hearings will continue. Taylor said that some of his criminal dockets often involve more than 50 people, and he intends to split those dockets into two days.

“I don’t think it would satisfy the spirit of the order to do 50 in the morning and 50 in the afternoon,” he said.

Taylor said that local courts have had to deal with interruptions before in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and he doesn’t anticipate the coronavirus emergency to interfere with the people’s right to a speedy trial.

“Certainly if it goes on very long, that could be a problem,” he said. “Our dockets in circuit court are current, so it’s not like we were behind and working to try to catch up. As long as it’s over within a reasonable period of time, I don’t think it will be a problem.”

The third emergency order Randolph released Tuesday noted that courts must remain open as required by the state constitution.

“I would say the administrative functions of the courts — circuit, chancery and justice — have to stay functioning,” Taylor said. “That does require that people have access to the courts.”

Circuit Clerk

Lincoln County Circuit Clerk Dustin Bairfield said his office is still open — and is required to stay open by law. Bairfield said his office has been extra vigilant about sanitizing surfaces, but noted that most of the time, people don’t actually have to come to his office to do business.

“The only thing someone would have to come in for is a marriage license or a passport,” Bairfield said. “Everything else, whether it’s a civil claim or if someone wants to change their voter information, it can be mailed or faxed or emailed.”

Bairfield said that anyone who has any business at his office who wants to distance themselves from others during the coronavirus outbreak can contact his office at 601-835-345.

The Lawrence County courthouse has decided that staying open does not necessarily mean keeping the doors unlocked. The courthouse has limited walk-in traffic, but work is continuing and Lawrence Circuit Clerk noted that, as in Lincoln County, most business at the courthouse does not need to happen in person. If someone does need entry, Circuit Clerk Sandy Brister that option is still available.

“We’re basically shut down for walk ins at the office and tying to continue business as best we can,” Brister said. “We’ve still got signs on the door with instructions (about how to gain entry if necessary).”