By Grace Mamon
If there is one aspect of life not drastically altered by the coronavirus pandemic, it’s the Lexington and Rockbridge court system. “We never truly closed,” said Michelle Trout, Rockbridge Circuit Court clerk.
Courts around the country began to consider guidelines for reopening in April, much earlier than many other establishments, according to the U.S. Courts website.
The federal recovery guidelines for courts give a lot of discretion to localities. Areas can decide how quickly they want to reopen based on their own pandemic status.
Lexington and Rockbridge decided the risk was manageable. But there are some changes from normal life at the courts. Visitors must be masked and answer a questionnaire at the door.
And jury trials are still on hold. That’s to keep inmate traffic to and from Rockbridge Regional Jail at a minimum.
The postponed jury trials are not being held virtually, Trout said, which means the involved parties are waiting indefinitely. But advisement and bond hearings can take place over video, “if everyone agrees,” she said.
These virtual hearings adhere to guidelines from the Virginia Supreme Court, which encourages courts to conduct “as much business as possible by means other than in-court proceedings,” according to a Sept. 28 news release.
The high court also extended the period of judicial emergency to Nov. 1. Clerks must also continue to receive filings from attorneys via email, to limit potential contact.
Clerks at Lexington’s General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts echoed many of Trout’s comments.
Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Lexington have adjusted as well.
Almost everything there is in person, said Lisa Fischer, clerk at the court. Exceptions include hearings that involve a child in a detention center, which are virtual.
Another change is for teen-aged drivers. Normally, teens and their parents came to the court to pick up their permanent driver’s license. Now, the courthouse is designating a pickup time for each new driver to come by and get their license without the usual courtroom ceremony.
Social distancing is easier in juvenile court, Fischer said, because it’s not open to the public.
“[It’s] not like general district,” she said. “There’s not that many people anyway.”
The General District Court also doesn’t allow inmates to appear. But other cases are taking place in-person, meaning no backlog.
Trout is glad to see most of the court’s business back to normal. “We’re essential.”