Seven members of the Mississippi Supreme Court gathered in a large conference room on March 26 with two more participating via teleconference as the state’s highest court continued to deal with how to keep all courts open while protecting public health and safety.
The Supreme Court since March 13 has issued seven emergency orders regarding court operations related to COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, and more orders are expected. The Supreme Court has ordered that courts must remain open for business while taking appropriate steps to protect public health and safety.
The March 13 first Emergency Administrative Order said, in part, “In compliance with the Constitution, all state courts – municipal, justice, county, chancery, circuit, and appellate courts – will remain open for business to ensure courts fulfill their constitutional and statutory duties. See Miss. Const. Art. 3, §§ 24, 25, 26, and 26A. Courts should continue normal business matters as much as possible.” The Supreme Court in subsequent orders repeated the Constitutional requirement to keep courts open while taking steps to protect people and slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“All of these orders were designed to keep justice moving,” Chief Justice Mike Randolph said in an interview. “I am really concerned about public health and safety. I am really concerned about fulfilling our Constitutional duties” to keep courts open.
“Especially in times like these, with a national emergency, nerves are frayed and people are scared. That’s when the courts have to be at their strongest, to make sure that we promote the public peace and ensure domestic tranquility,” Chief Justice Randolph said.
Since the adoption of the first Emergency Administrative Order on March 13, the Supreme Court has given trial judges discretion to craft plans to address the specific needs of their courts.
“They are working in innovative ways,” Chief Justice Randolph said. “They have to figure out what is best for their courts.”
In the 12th Circuit of Forrest and Perry counties, Circuit Judge Robert Helfrich directed that Drug Intervention Court participants must be screened for illness, including having their temperature taken at the door of the facility before being allowed inside. Anyone with a temperature of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit was turned away and directed to see a doctor. About 200 people are enrolled in the 12th Circuit Drug Intervention Court of Forrest and Perry counties. They report periodically to the court. The reporting time has been extended so that no more than five or six people are gathered at one time.
It’s imperative to continue close monitoring of the intervention court participants so that they don’t lapse back into drug and alcohol use, especially under stress. “It’s a vulnerable population. We do need to watch them, especially during this time,” Judge Helfrich said.
In Jackson County Youth Court, Judge Sharon W. Sigalas on March 18 ordered that no child would be admitted to the detention center without authorization from Youth Court staff. “Unless needed for public safety, detention will not take any delinquents...,” Judge Sigalas’ order said. The order also suspended visitation of foster children. Detention and shelter hearings required by law “will be handled in a manner as not to expose anyone to the virus unnecessarily,” the order said. The Youth Court remains open for emergency hearings.
Circuit Judge Charles Webster of the 11th Circuit raised concerns in early March about summoning jurors in Bolivar, Coahoma, Quitman and Tunica counties. He cancelled jury trials. “We were just at the beginning of it getting bad, with all of the warnings. I didn’t think it was a good idea to bring in a bunch of people for a jury and pack them in at close quarters. What if you compel someone to come in and they get the coronavirus? I made a decision that I wasn’t going to hold any jury trials,” Judge Webster said. “It progressively got worse.” He will wait for conditions to improve before rescheduling jury trials.
The Supreme Court in the first Emergency Administrative Order issued March 13 gave trial judges discretion to postpone trials and to refrain from conducting jury trials. The Supreme Court in a second Emergency Administrative Order issued March 15 extended the time window for postponing jury trials until May 18.
The Supreme Court has urged the use of technology to reduce person-to-person contact. In the fifth Emergency Administrative Order, issued March 20, the Court said, “All courts are urged to limit in-person, courthouse contact as much as possible by utilizing available technologies, including electronic filing, teleconferencing, and videoconferencing.” The Court also said, “ Judges’ offices or court clerks’ offices shall remain accessible by telephone and email, to the extent possible, during regular business hours. If available, drop boxes should be used for conventionally-filed documents.”
Senior Chancellor Deborah Gambrell Chambers said the 10th Chancery Court, which spans Forrest, Lamar, Marion, Pearl River and Perry counties, has adapted to teleconferencing with attorneys for hearings using Zoom. She even heard one case from home by teleconference. In-person proceedings that can’t be postponed are all held in the Forrest County Chancery Courthouse, whether they are Forrest County cases or from any of the other counties in the district. An officer with a digital thermometer takes a person’s temperature before that person may come onto the second floor of the courthouse for Chancery business, and no more than 10 people can come in at one time.
“We are doing what we think makes sense. We are trying to keep the judges from traveling and being exposed,” Judge Gambrell Chambers said.
The four chancellors of the Hinds Chancery Court adopted a similar approach in a March 16 statement, and on March 26 revised and extended the date for case continuances (postponements) to April 10.
The Hinds Chancery March 26 Statement Regarding Court Operations said, “In compliance with the Constitution, Hinds Chancery Court will remain open for business to ensure courts fulfill their constitutional and statutory duties. See Miss. Const. Art. 3, §§ 24, 25, 26, and 26A. Mindful of the Court’s duty to ensure the ‘just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding’ as well as its duty to protect parties, court staff, witnesses, corporate representatives, and practitioners who appear before it and the community in which it sits, the Fifth Chancery Court District is continuing all matters set through April 10, 2020, effective immediately. Emergency matters will be heard as necessary. Only necessary persons will be permitted in courtrooms. Ex parte matters will be handled via email, teleconference, and/or video conference (utilizing Zoom).”
The Supreme Court has ordered that some proceedings cannot be delayed. in Emergency Administrative Order 5 issued March 20 set out types of in-person proceedings that shall go forward without postponement: Jury trials currently in progress; Department of Child Protection Services emergency matters related to child protection; proceedings directly related to: protecting the constitutional rights of all persons, habeas corpus, emergency child-custody orders, relief from abuse and orders of protection, mandatory youth court detention hearings for youth held in custody, emergency mental-health orders, emergency protection of elderly or vulnerable persons, petitions for temporary injunctive relief, issues involving the COVID-19 public-health emergency, obtaining arrest and search warrants, and other proceedings required by law enforcement, ensuring the Mississippi Judiciary has met its constitutional requirements; any other emergency and time-sensitive matters, in the discretion of individual judges.