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County court system still operating

On March 13, 2020, the Alabama Supreme Court issued the following emergency order:

All in-person proceedings in all state and local courts in Alabama, including, but not limited to, proceedings in the circuit court, district court (including cases on the small claims docket), juvenile court, municipal court, probate court, and appellate courts, are suspended beginning Monday, March 16, 2020 through Thursday, April 16, 2020, subject to the exceptions below…

Shortly, thereafter, on March 20, 2020, the Covington County Commission announced it was closing the Covington County Courthouse “to the general public.”

Our Nation has some pretty strict principles related to the operation of our courts.  For example, the Alabama Constitution requires “that all courts shall be open” and the United States Constitution provides that in criminal prosecutions, the defendant shall have “the right to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”  The Alabama Rules of Civil Procedure state that “all trials upon the merits shall be conducted in open court, except as otherwise provided by statute, and so far as convenient in a regular court room.”

How do we, as judges, reconcile these bedrock principles of our justice system with the new operating environment forced upon us by the corona virus?  So, what is actually going on with our local court system?   

First, it is important that you know that all the local judges are continuing to go to work at the Courthouse each day.  All of us are committed to doing everything reasonably possible to resolve the conflicts that have been entrusted to our care.  We will do that as long as the rules allow us to do so.

Second, the Court system is not closed.  Yes, the Courthouse is closed to the general public.  And the Alabama Supreme Court has suspended in-court appearances for most court cases.  However, there are exceptions.  For example, we continue to handle guilty pleas for incarcerated inmates, domestic violence restraining orders, mental commitments, and other emergency cases.  We have set up special procedures to comply with social distancing, but we are still holding hearings on these emergency cases in the Courthouse.

Also, behind the scenes, we are working and ruling on cases that do not require court appearances.  And, through the wonder of the internet and modern technology, we are holding “virtual hearings” by video teleconference.  We even are using the “old-fashioned” telephone to conduct court business.  Unfortunately, and despite our best efforts, some cases will be delayed by the current health crisis.  However, we are doing our very best to find ways to attend to the business we can under the new rules.      

Lastly, we want to remind everyone that while this a serious health crisis, it is only temporary.  It is vital that we follow the rules to keep us and our neighbors safe.  We all need to do our part to get us to the other side of this pandemic as soon as possible.  At the same time, the justice system will continue to operate to serve the citizens of our community as efficiently and safely as possible.  Thank you for being patient.  If you have any questions about your pending case or what is happening at the Courthouse, please call (334) 428-2500.  We are here to serve you!

Circuit Judge Charles A. “Lex” Short

Circuit Judge Ben Bowden

District Judge Julie S. Moody

Probate Judge Stacy B. Brooks