Virginia courts have been ordered to halt all non-emergency proceedings for at least three weeks in response to the coronavirus outbreak, effectively putting a pause on thousands of trials as well as eviction and debt- collection lawsuits.
The sweeping emergency order, issued Monday by Chief Justice Donald Lemons of the Supreme Court of Virginia at the request of Gov. Ralph Northam, postpones virtually all civil, traffic and criminal cases heard in state courts until after April 6.
“This Order declaring a judicial emergency is hereby issued for all district and circuit courts of the Commonwealth to protect the health and safety of court employees, litigants, judges, and the general public,” Lemons wrote.
The order exempts cases facing “speedy trial” deadlines and emergency proceedings, including quarantine matters, arraignments, bail reviews, protective order cases, emergency child custody or protection cases and civil commitment hearings.
The broad court action comes amid an increase in confirmed coronavirus cases in Virginia. The Virginia Department of Health on Tuesday announced 67 patients have tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Two patients have died.
The widening pandemic prompted Northam on Tuesday to urge public gatherings to be limited to 10 or fewer people, with some exceptions.
State courts in the Lynchburg region will remain open under the order, but officials are asking only those with essential business to enter courthouses. Some courts plan to use video conferencing to conduct bail hearings and other matters, including general district courts located in the Lynchburg region.
“We’re trying to do what we can so we don’t put anybody at risk,” Chief Judge Sam Eggleston III, of the Lynchburg, Amherst and Nelson general district courts, said. “It’s a new thing for everybody. I don’t know anybody who has had to live through anything like this before.”
Lynchburg Circuit Court has postponed probate cases for two weeks and is considering suspending passport services, according to Circuit Court Clerk Todd Swisher.
“We’re trying to minimize the amount of people who are accessing the building,” Swisher said.
Lemons’ order came the same day U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski, the chief federal judge in western Virginia, also postponed in-person proceedings in criminal, civil and bankruptcy cases.
Federal courthouses in the Western District, which includes Lynchburg, will keep their doors open to accept non-electronic filings, according to Monday’s order. All in-person federal hearings scheduled this month, however, have been postponed and all criminal and civil trials will be suspended until after April 30.
In response to the court orders, the Blue Ridge Regional Jail Authority has delayed the reporting dates for offenders ordered to serve weekend jail sentences by 60 days.
Administrator Tim Trent said the jail system, which serves Lynchburg and Amherst, Bedford, Campbell and Halifax counties, has also suspended all visitations for the foreseeable future and will instead make phone calls free for inmates.
Trent said the jail system has instituted stricter health screening measures for new inmates and has ramped up disinfection efforts to keep facilities clean.
Meanwhile, Lynchburg police have begun issuing summonses for traffic and low-level offenses with court dates scheduled after June 1, according to a department spokesperson.
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.