CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia courts can begin the first steps of a gradual return to normal operations beginning May 18.

The West Virginia Supreme Court made the announcement Wednesday via an administrative order.

“The Court recognizes that, even though the Governor has relaxed containment efforts, it will be many more months before society returns to some of its pre-pandemic practices,” as stated in the COVID-19 Resumption of Operations Order and Protocols issued by the court.

While the order and protocols allow certain court proceedings to resume subject to the protections contained in the protocols, local courts are not required to resume in-person proceedings, and they retain the discretion to delay, impose additional restrictions or to continue to hear matters via video or remote technology, according to a press release.

The release explains that the court’s protocols are designed to mitigate risks associated with a gradual return to normal, in-person court functions, and are generally consistent with federal and state public health guidelines. The protocols establish minimum statewide standards. The court encourages local judicial officers to work with other elected officials and administrators in their counties on public health and safety issues.

“When a localized outbreak occurs, it may be appropriate for the Chief Circuit Judge or Chief Family Court Judge to issue temporary judicial emergency orders,” the protocols explain. The protocols establish a two-tier system of green and COVID-19 hotspot counties, as designated by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.

Green counties are those which are not hotspots and can gradually resume normal operations, provided that strict guidelines concerning sanitization, social distancing and personal protection equipment are followed; however, judicial officers are encouraged to still hold hearings or proceedings via video or teleconferences when appropriate, the release states.

Subject to the protocols, in green counties:

  • In-person hearings or proceedings may commence on or after May 18.
  • Grand jury proceedings may begin June 15, and jury trials may begin June 29.
  • Judicial officers should continue to enforce social distancing in court facilities and may move jury trials to alternative locations that are large enough to allow appropriate social distancing, as long as the location can provide adequate provisions for examination of witnesses and presentation of evidence.
  • Employees may return to work beginning May 18, but must comply with protocol instructions on social distancing, must continuously disinfect common work areas, should continue to use remote technology for meetings whenever possible and must wear masks when interacting with other employees and the public. In all counties, employees who have a fever or other common COVID-19 symptoms cannot go to work and must remain at home for 14 days after the onset of symptoms. Employees directly exposed to a suspected case of COVID-19 should self-quarantine and not return to work for 14 days.
  • Employees should wear masks in common areas and when interacting with the public. Attorneys, litigants and witnesses must also wear masks when appearing in court. Consistent with recommendations from the CDC and Gov. Justice, any type of face covering that catches droplets leaving the nose and mouth, including homemade fabric masks or bandanas, are effective. Medical masks or N95 masks are not required.

In hotspot counties:

  • Judicial officers must still hold hearings or proceedings via video or teleconference, if appropriate. While judicial officers may not hold an in-person hearing or proceeding specifically prohibited by the protocols, they may impose additional restrictions and take additional precautions designed to protect health and safety.
  • Jurors and grand jurors may not be summoned until the hotspot designation is removed. Upon a hotspot county reaching green county status, a grand jury proceeding or jury trial may commence on the dates provided for green counties, or seven (7) days after that county obtains green county status, whichever is later.
  • Employees should continue to work remotely, if possible, and offices should continue to be staffed with minimal personnel.

Along with the protocols, the Supreme Court also issued an order that establishes new deadlines for filing of matters and pleadings in cases in which the filing of such matters or documents was stayed during the judicial emergency period.