The COVID-19 Public Health Emergency has changed how the courts operate, and has created new challenges for everyone involved in the judicial system.
The New Mexico Supreme Court set up an emergency response team to work with the administrations and chief judges of courts throughout the state. Together they have created policies and procedures that balance the need of the courts to perform their crucial constitutional functions and the need to safeguard the health of the public and court staff.
The district and magistrate courthouses are still open, but new procedures have eliminated most of the need for parties and attorneys to come to the courthouse. Most court hearings take place remotely by video conference or phone.
Attorneys, parties, witnesses, interpreters, the judge and court staff all participate by phone and video. The court clerks’ offices are accepting documents for filing by email, mail and fax.
If you need to come to a courthouse, the Supreme Court has set up standard procedures to make the courthouses the safest environment possible. All people entering a courthouse have to answer screening questions, have their temperatures taken, wear face coverings over their mouths and noses, and provide their contact information.
These requirements are the same for judges, court staff, attorneys and the general public. The courts have also implemented enhanced cleaning procedures, placed 6-foot distancing markers in areas where people gather, and installed Plexiglass barriers in courtrooms.
When do you need to come into the courthouse? When a new case is filed that requires a filing fee, the fee has to be paid in person.
The courts have started holding in-person jury trials again. Trials without a jury and other hearings may only be held in person if a party files a motion and the judge agrees that there are extraordinary reasons why a remote hearing will not work.
I’d like to share a few tips for parties who have active court cases. Remote hearings have created several challenges for the court and the parties to cases. Hearings tend to take longer. There are often technological challenges with making sure everyone can hear and see what’s going on.
There are basic communication issues when people talk over each other or you can’t tell who is speaking. And presenting evidence at hearings when the parties and the judge are not in the same place can be a major challenge. These challenges can be overcome with a bit of patience and preparation.
Communication between parties and the court is more important than ever. If you are a party to a case, make sure the court has your email address if you have one. Include your email address and phone number on anything you file with the court or file a notice with your contact information if you have not provided your email address and phone number to the court before. Put together a list of the phone numbers and email addresses of any attorneys and other parties in your case.
For parties with a hearing scheduled in the next couple of months, assume that your hearing will be by video or phone. The specific details of your hearing should be on the notice of hearing you received from the court.
For video conferences, you should also receive an emailed invitation at the email address you have provided to the court. If your hearing is by video conference and you don’t receive an invitation, contact the judge’s office before your hearing date.
If your remote hearing will include presenting evidence and testimony to the judge, you need to prepare several days ahead of time to make sure everything will be available at the hearing. If you have a witness who is testifying, you are responsible for making sure the witness has the information and capability to join the video or phone conference.
This usually means sharing the invitation you receive from the court for a video conference or the phone number to a telephone conference, but can be more complicated.
If you plan to present exhibits for the judge to consider, you are required to email all potential exhibits to the court and to all other parties at least 48 hours before the hearing. You will only be able to use evidence that has been submitted ahead of time at the hearing so that the judge and the other parties can see it even though you are in different places.
If you would like to know more about the courts’ response to the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, the latest state-wide information is available at nmcourts.gov/news.aspx. Valencia County-specific information, email addresses for filing and for submission of exhibits are posted at thirteenthdistrictcourt.nmcourts.gov.
(Simone Seiler is associate general counsel for the 13th Judicial District Court. Her legal background is in civil litigation.)