FINCASTLE – The courtroom is still quiet at the Botetourt County Courthouse here.
After more than half a year, Virginia’s courts remain operating under a judiciary emergency and will continue until Nov. 1 as a way of addressing the coronavirus. In Botetourt Circuit Court, part of the 25th Judicial Circuit of Virginia, the edict from the state’s high court has not had much of an impact, said Circuit Court Clerk Tommy Moore.
Under the judiciary emergency, precautions against the deadly virus are expanded, including mask requirements and health checklists for visitors. In Botetourt County, criminal trials are normally held two days a week – Tuesdays and Thursdays – and civil matters on Monday and Wednesday in the large room filled with chairs, tables and a judge’s bench that currently sit empty waiting for a case.
“In circuit court we are still doing the same number of cases as before,” said Moore, adding even before the COVID-19 virus hit the county only held five to 10 jury trials a year. During a typical court day, a criminal docket has between 20 to 30 cases and that number has not shrunk, he said.
If court proceedings are necessary, technology is available to facilitate the legal action. During the declared emergency, Botetourt County has held teleconferences to arraign defendants, hold hearings and trials. Defendants have been arraigned from Roanoke and Lynchburg via teleconference, said Moore.
The Supreme Court also recommends staying six feet away from people if in-person business must be conducted.
“With a small courtroom, it’s next to impossible,” he said of social distancing.
The Virginia Supreme Court has authorized lower courts to accept digital and scanned documents with electronic signatures and encourages the use of email.
Court records after 1972 can be accessed online, which cuts down on the number of people visiting the Circuit Court’s offices, said Moore.
While criminal cases have seen little impact, civil cases are a different matter. The state Supreme Court has green lighted the court’s ability to place “civil cases on the back burner,” said Moore.
Several attorneys in Botetourt County did not return calls on how the emergency is impacting their clients.