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Resuming court proceedings now in local hands

Newly elected Chief Justice Paul Newby wants judicial districts, not state officials, deciding when and how to resume full court functions, including jury trials.

This week, Newby said he believes key coronavirus-connected safety decisions are better made at the local level, by judges, and not in Raleigh.

He suggested court officials consult with local health directors and examine other data.

“We will be following the lead of our two senior resident superior court judges and the chief district judge,” District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch said. “They fully understand the dangers of COVID-19 and the continued need for appropriate safety precautions.”

The 43rd Prosecutorial District has two senior resident judges: Bradley B. Letts oversees 30B, made up of Haywood and Jackson counties; Bill Coward oversees 30A, made up of Macon, Clay, Cherokee, Graham and Swain counties.

Chief District Judge Roy Wijewickrama oversees all district courts, including social services, juvenile, domestic and district criminal.

“I ask that local judicial officials and employees conduct trials and other proceedings and perform other courthouse functions with caution and with due regard for the COVID-19 situation in their respective judicial districts,” the chief justice’s order states.

Newby also clarified a previous regulation implemented by his predecessor, Cheri Beasley.

"She empowered judges in jury trials with the authority to order jurors or testifying witnesses to remove face coverings so that their facial expressions can be observed. Now, under Newby’s guidance, any presiding judicial officials in any trial or proceeding can order the removal of face coverings."

Welch said the 43rd Prosecutorial District’s offices will be open, though employees who can work from home will continue to do so.

In the fall, Beasley allowed jury trials to resume under state-approved safety plans. In mid-December, with an increase statewide of people infected with COVID-19, she delayed most court proceedings until Jan. 13.

Newby has requested that the governor’s office prioritize court personnel in the COVID-19 vaccination schedule.

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