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Editorial: Courts need to stay up and running — with some caution

As the coronavirus panic train continues to pick up steam, there have been calls to virtually shut down New Mexico’s court system by drastically limiting criminal proceedings and closing down civil ones.

While serious precautions are indeed necessary — the courts have implemented a wide range of measures to protect the health of the public and judicial employees — the system simply can’t close.

The state courts heard more than 337,000 cases last year — about 75 percent of them civil matters. The system already is backlogged, and a widespread shutdown would make it virtually impossible to ever dig out. And in a time of crisis, it’s worth recalling some of the critical functions the courts perform. Among them, protective orders for victims of domestic violence, pretrial detention decisions in criminal cases — no, we can’t let virus fears mean dangerous criminal defendants stay on the streets; felony appearances and arraignments and for that matter any cases that might arise from the state’s emergency health restrictions. That would include enforcing Department of Health orders.

The courts are considered exempt from the public health orders. But they moved quickly, forming an emergency response team the same day — March 11 — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham first declared a public health emergency. The Supreme Court formed an emergency response team — and ordered one be established in every district. It immediately implemented restrictions and has continued to improve its protocols since.

Civil jury trials have been canceled. Criminal jury trials will be held only under extraordinary circumstances and the local chief judge will have to first get approval, administratively, from the Supreme Court. Enhanced cleaning procedures have been implemented, with the courts getting an assist from House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, and the Governor’s Office.

People coming to the courthouse are being screened, and people exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 are being denied access. Out-of-state work travel by judicial employees has been suspended and a 14-day self-quarantine is required for any judicial officers and employees who traveled out of state on personal business starting March 18.

Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said the previous limit of 25 people present for any proceeding was reduced to 15 on Monday, and as of today there is a presumption all hearings will be held by video, including probation and sentencing. If there is a compelling reason it can’t be done by video — an example might be a domestic violence victim needs to be present to safely testify — steps must be taken to limit the number of people in the courtroom and they must be spaced apart.

Self-represented litigants are being allowed to file by email or fax, eliminating the need to visit the clerk’s office in person.

There have been calls to eliminate personal appearances by attorneys — something largely addressed by the new presumption that hearings are done by video. In cases where there may be a compelling reason to appear in person, the attorney has the ability to file a motion seeking an alternative.

To help a stressed public, the court has added 30 days to the deadline for paying fines and fees. That’s something that could be extended.

Some have called for a moratorium on eviction and foreclosure cases. New Mexico statutes don’t appear to allow that given their use of the word “shall,” but the courts are exploring whether those actions could be put on hold or “stayed.”

On the criminal side, the court will continue to allow grand juries to operate but will space jurors out in larger courtrooms. The controversial Case Management Order imposing deadlines on criminal cases in Bernalillo County has not yet been suspended or tweaked. It should be.

The world we are living in today bears little resemblance to what it looked and felt like just a month ago. But just as we must preserve an economic infrastructure in this country and help workers who lost their jobs at the stroke of a pen, we must keep critical institutions like our court system up and running.

Tuesday, 03/24/2020 Page .A10