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Editorial: Court system on track for important restart

For much of the previous year, North Carolina’s directives on court operations placed many cases in a state of limbo.

There’s been some progress made in civil and misdemeanor criminal cases, but things are different in Superior Court because of the nature of proceedings there.

Charged with a crime during the pandemic, it’s been slow going for people hoping to make their case to a judge or jury. Cases with their start before the pandemic also slowed or stalled. A justice system already operating near or above capacity in Rowan County became more clogged with cases. Because criminal charges do not always move quickly through the justice system, cases that would already take years might require a couple more.

For victims of crime or their family members, justice has been delayed. 

The delay has been understandable. Without vaccinations, a clear understanding of a new, rapidly spreading virus or virus-proof plans for reducing risk for all parties in the courthouse, it’s hard to mandate business as usual. Without a clear plan, people heading to court risked picking up a case of coronavirus in addition to a sentence. That people might pick up the virus elsewhere in their daily life does not mean they should be at risk when doing business in the courthouse.

But there’s an important balance between justice and health that courts must strive to find. It’s a balance District Attorney Brandy Cook phrased well in a story published on page 1A of Tuesday’s Post.

“Safety is paramount to everyone involved, but there has to be a balance with moving forward for justice with all parties involved, which includes victims, officers who have charged particular cases and it also includes the defendants,” Cook told reporter Ben Stansell. “Everybody has their right to a trial, so it’s important for all parties that ar some point in the near future, that we are able to move forward.”

Nearly 11 months since the first COVID-19 case appeared in Rowan County, there’s been time for county and court officials to develop a plan to ensure some measure of justice continues. In Rowan County, that plan appears to be starting slow and small with the best precautions and knowledge available.

Jury trials for civil cases will start March 8 in Rowan County and criminal juries will start March 15.

As courts welcome more people in for proceedings, there will be arguments over masks. Court officials and law enforcement officers working at the courthouse will have to get strict about COVID-19 precautions. But the pandemic has changed a lot about daily life. Too many still don’t realize that. People need to do their part to protect others or be ready to accept the possibility the pandemic’s restrictions will be with us into 2022.

The pandemic shouldn’t fundamentally alter the right to a speedy trial guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment. And it looks like leaders in the local court system have charted a good path toward addressing a backlog of cases.

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