An extension of the statewide judicial emergency, issued this week by the Virginia Supreme Court, will stretch current courtroom precautions well into next month.
It also looks ahead to an eventual return to activity, with particular regard toward jury trials and eviction proceedings.
Monday’s order stipulates that the emergency status will continue through July 19. It’s the fifth time since March 16 that the justices have extended the emergency during the pandemic. All civil and criminal jury trials remain on hold, and visitors to court buildings must still wear face masks.
One issue addressed in the extension is the resumption on June 29 of unlawful detainer hearings and the issuance of writs of eviction. Those were prohibited by the state for most of June.
That three-week pause, which from its inception was set to expire after June 28 at the earliest, came at the request of Gov. Ralph Northam, who has said he is planning a comprehensive rent relief program to provide financial assistance during the pandemic. It aims to reduce displacement for low-income tenants and facilitate payment plans between landlords and renters.
Northam has said the relief program cannot be implemented until sometime after July 1, but it was unclear Tuesday whether a firm date has been set, or whether he will address the issue later this week. A spokeswoman did not immediately respond to requests for an update.
Prior to the suspension, but during the emergency, general district courts in the Roanoke Valley showed reduced eviction activity. Salem largely stopped accepting unlawful detainer suits, Roanoke County saw only a handful and in Roanoke many housing cases that did go before a judge were either postponed or dismissed.
Tenants were also able to seek protections through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which grants a 60-day extension to tenants who can show they lost income due to COVID-19, and 120-day extensions to renters who live in properties with federally backed mortgage loans.
Mona Raza, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society of the Roanoke Valley, has said it’s important for defendants in unlawful detainer cases to appear for their scheduled hearings and provide information about their situation. Skipping a court date rarely stalls the process, she said.
The Supreme Court order also addresses jury trials, which have been prohibited during the pandemic.
The latest order says that any such hearing scheduled after July 19 is subject to a further period of suspension if the emergency extends again.
But it also announced the establishment of a task force to focus on reinstating jury trials across the state. The team consists of 22 judges, mostly from Northern Virginia, Augusta, Richmond and the Tidewater area.
The group will also include Roanoke Circuit Court Judge David Carson.
The order also tasks the chief judge in every Virginia circuit with developing a plan that lays out how and when their facilities will be able to safely resume jury trials.
“In creating the plan, each chief judge shall consult with the other judges in their circuit, as well as local sheriffs, public health officials, attorneys and the clerk of court,” it says.
Those proposals must be submitted by Aug. 17, and while it’s unclear what the timetable is for reviewing each plan, the court’s order stipulates that “No jury trials shall be held in a particular locality until the plan is approved.”
Many of the same courthouse restrictions put in place in prior orders carry over onto the latest one, and those with legal business to conduct are still advised to work online when possible and to plan ahead for precautions when appearing in person.