Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Following calls for an increase in the use of teleconferencing technology in courtrooms amid the coronavirus outbreak, the state Supreme Court is now requiring judges to hold hearings via phone and video “to the fullest extent possible.”
The new order, issued Monday and effective immediately, also limits the number of people allowed into any room in a courthouse to 15 at a time, down from the 25-person limit in place under a previous order.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s newest order limiting public gatherings to five people does not apply to court facilities.
In a news release announcing new restrictions meant to help guard against the spread of COVID-19, Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said the courts must continue providing essential services.
“Courts recognize that extraordinary steps are necessary to protect public safety and the health of New Mexicans,” she said.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors sent letters to the court last week asking justices to take additional precautions in the wake of the public health emergency.
District Attorney Raúl Torrez on Thursday called the judiciary’s response to the crisis “slow and underwhelming,” as he announced that attorneys in his office would no longer attend in person a majority of court hearings.
Michael Patrick, a spokesman for the DA’s Office, said Monday night that the court’s new restrictions on the number of people allowed in one room “obviously causes issues for the foreseeable future when it comes to the use of the grand jury.” He said it could pose issues at preliminary hearings as well.
Bennett Baur, chief public defender, said he agrees “with the Supreme Court that in-person hearings should only be held in the most urgent situations.” Attorneys in his office, he said, are required to adhere to the six-foot distance rule when they do attend hearings.
According to the new court order, “all judges are now required to use telephonic or audiovisual attendance for court appearances by attorneys, litigants, witnesses and the press, unless there is an emergency need for an in-person appearance.”
The news release sent out Monday said that courts are facilitating teleconferencing by using Google Meet, a free service.