Like so many of our institutions, the judicial system has undergone changes to day-to-day business in the wake of the global pandemic.
Individual courts may have slightly different procedures based on case levels, staffing and even the layout of the courthouse. However, most courts have taken similar precautions. It is my hope to familiarize you with what you might encounter.
Probably the most important thing to mention is that if you have court scheduled, you should absolutely contact the court or, if you have one, your attorney. This is to ensure you understand how the court is going to proceed for your particular case.
In some instances, the number of hearings scheduled in a particular timeframe have been reduced and, as a result, your case may have been moved to a different date and time.
While district and magistrate courts and the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court remain open, the New Mexico Supreme Court has authorized probate and municipal courts to close. So again, call first.
In New Mexico, the courts have been ordered to vastly reduce in-person appearances and, instead, conduct video or telephonic hearings. In instances where this is not possible, the courts are generously granting continuances when requested.
If you do appear in person for a court hearing, you will note some very obvious changes not unlike what you have probably seen in stores operating during this time. First, you will see that social distancing is required. Whether you are in line to check-in or if you are in the courtroom, measures have been taken to maximize a 6-foot separation.
You may also notice that in-person staffing has been reduced as court employees have been authorized to work from home. When you call the court, you may actually be speaking to a clerk working from home. Because of these measures, please be patient with clerks working either shorthanded in the office or without full access to resources if they are working from home.
Pre-trial hearings, preliminary examinations and non-jury trials are currently being scheduled and conducted by video. Jury trials for both criminal and civil matters have been postponed and some general civil matters have been postponed as well.
While I have not had to conduct an actual non-jury trial by video, many interesting questions arise from the very possibility. A defendant’s constitutional right of confrontation — the right to face and question witnesses against them — is one question. Another is the identification and authentication of evidence.
Should our situation continue, the courts may have to make decisions that balance public safety and individual rights. While these issues have been addressed in the past, the current situation is unique and may tender different results.
In magistrate court, landlord-tenant cases continue. Please note: It is very important if you are a defendant in this type of case that you appear for your hearing — be that by video, telephone or in-person. While there has been a suspension of evictions for non-payment of rent, this is not an automatic process.
Certain conditions need to be met for a stay of eviction to be ordered for non-payment of rent. Additionally, evictions for other reasons, beyond rent, can still be ordered by the court.
While I do not believe (or perhaps it is just hope on my part) that our courts will remain in their current operational situation for a prolonged period of time, some of what we are now doing may become enduring. Work from home, while on first blush seems incongruent with a court house, has allowed our court system to provide needed justice services to New Mexicans while protecting public health and safety.
It perhaps can be refined, improved or even expanded. The continued use of video technology for the handling of pre-trial hearings and certain motion hearings may also have merit. Only a few weeks back our state Supreme Court heard arguments by video and even had one of the justices appear by video. Many state and federal courts are doing the same because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Here are a few take-a-ways from our experiences during the public health emergency. Courts are an essential part of government and remain open to the fullest extent possible. With that designation, comes the responsibility to safeguard the public, court personnel and all parties to a case from the risks associated with COVID-19. The courts remain the vanguard in the protection of constitutional rights, and these remain at the forefront of every decision.
Lastly, New Mexicans have always been pioneers and enjoy a great history of taking on difficult tasks and challenges. We will get through this and we will be stronger and more united as a result.
(Judge John R. Chavez is the magistrate in Belen. He is a native of Valencia County and is a retired U.S. Army colonel.)