Delaware Chief Justice extends court closures until May 14

WILMINGTON — State court closures to the public were extended until May 14, Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. announced Tuesday morning.

An initial Judicial Emergency declared on March 14 was set to expire on Wednesday. Now, only one Justice of the Peace Court in each county – Kent, Sussex and New Castle – will remain open, albeit in limited fashion.

“The Delaware courts have been operating under a Judicial Emergency Declaration to protect the health of judicial officers, court employees, our justice partners and members of the public from the COVID-19 virus,” Chief Justice Seitz said. “We are continuing to conduct necessary and urgent court operations following Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

“Consistent with the governor’s ongoing emergency orders, I am issuing an order extending both the judicial emergency and the restriction barring the public from court facilities for an additional 30 days.”

The chief justice reasoned that “if people are not supposed to be out and about doing things, then they shouldn’t be entering courthouses.”

A few essential employees are working within courthouses, while the majority of staff is working remotely to continue operations as best possible. The chief justice described the contributions of all staff during the tumult as “incredible.”

All trials are halted or postponed and criminal case arraignments, pleas, preliminary hearings and detention facility determinations have been held via video conference or by telephone, if possible, Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman Sean O’Sullivan said.

A weekly calendar is still in effect, the chief justice said.

Cases that do not involve a threat to the public will be deferred and “will create a backlog and challenge to the courts.”

In a news release, the chief justice said the Delaware judiciary, along with the Department of Public Health, the Delaware Emergency Management Agency and system partners, continue to monitor the situation and hope to resume court operations as soon as it is safe and practical.

The chief justice said the courts are working with the Department of Justice and Office of Defense Services to address any issues moving forward.

At the Justice of the Peace Courts 3 (Georgetown), 7 (Dover) and 11 (Wilmington) bail payments can be made from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“We are encouraging bail bond agents to call before they come to our buildings,” Mr. O’Sullivan said. “They and, occasionally, police officers, will arrive without notice.”

While there are no Chancery Court trials ongoing, arguments can be made through video and teleconference.

Emergency entrance only

No persons are permitted in a courthouse unless their matter is deemed an emergency. If approved, they are heard by appointment, Mr. O’Sullivan said.

“If the public appears, they are given a data sheet which provides information on how to make an online payment and /or numbers to call the court,” he said.

While the public is not screened, “our facilities are cleaned regularly and our staff have plenty of cleaning supplies and PPE,” Mr. O’Sullivan said.

There’s enough lobby space for social distancing and Mr. O’Sullivan said “We have bulletproof glass between staff at the counter and the public.

“Security officers have PPE equipment. Courtroom tables are placed away from the court bench. Judges are not taking paperwork at the bench,” he said.

Dropboxes are available for emergency criminal and civil filings at JP courts closed to the public and “the persons without access to e-filing who need to file paper documents.”

The full text of the order is available online at courts.delaware.gov, along with the latest information about the Delaware judiciary’s response to COVID-19.

State of Delaware information on COVID-19 is posted online at de.gov/coronavirus.

For any questions, contact the State’s Department of Public Health Coronavirus call center at 1-866-4081899 or email DPHCall@delaware.gov.

In early April, Deputy Court Administrator Elmer Setting orchestrated the transfer of half of the court’s personal protection equipment stockpile to ChristianaCare. The donation included 300 N95 face masks and 300 shields, plus hand sanitizer and wipes.

“We were lucky the AOC had the early foresight to order emergency equipment,” Mr. Setting said. “We had enough and I know (ChristianaCare staff) were happy to receive what we could spare.”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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