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Area courts face "new realities".

By Michele Robertson

Not unlike any other business, the court systems are also learning to adapt to functioning with the new realities that Covid-19 brings. Prosecutor Patrick Melvin, Chief Deputy District Attorney with the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office for Chavez, Eddy, and Lea counties shared some insight on how their office is adapting to the new guidelines that are in place. A Supreme Court order has limited appearances to video and telephonic means, and Melvin said ‘the vast majority are video.”

“The Constitution doesn’t get suspended; we still have to protect the public by proceeding in criminal prosecutions” stated Melvin.

The video and telephonic court proceedings began on March 17th, 2020. They were expanded on March 23rd and then extended on April 16th. At this time, preliminary hearings are proceeding forward through video conferences. Jury trial proceedings, by Supreme Court order, unless findings have been made have been suspended through May 29, 2020.

“At this time, Eddy County has not had a jury trial that has met court orders yet” he said.

On the New Mexico Courts website is order No. 20-8500-013, Updating and Consolidating Precautionary Measures for Court Operations in the New Mexico Judiciary During the Covid-19 Public Health Emergency. In this most recent extension, all trials not required to be suspended must be held in a way that limits the number of people in a single, connected location within the courthouse to no more than 15 individuals. This includes the judge, jurors, court personnel, attorneys, litigants, the press, and the public. The Chief Judge of the district may extend that number to 25 if there were an emergency needing to do so.

Self-represented litigants can email or fax documents which need to be filed with the courts to limit the number of persons entering the courthouse.

The order also states that all courts shall screen visitors and deny access to anyone reporting to have a fever, cough, or other symptom that has developed in the past 14 days which is recognized as being a symptom of Covid-19. Also, if they have traveled out of state in the past 14 days or live with someone who has, or if they or someone they are in close contact with has a diagnosis of the infection.

“We’ve been adapting to it, we have to” said Melvin. Generally, Google Meet is used for the preliminary court appearances. The court sends out a meeting invite, and participants join via the link.

To get an idea of the setup, on the prosecution side, they are located at the Eddy County office. The witness can come into the office to the conference room where video is linked into the court. The attorney and all parties involved are on the video conference, but in separate areas.

“The logistics of setting up is certainly challenging. We are adapting very well given the difficulties of this” Melvin said.

There have also been a number of steps taken to safeguard against Covid-19. Some staff are working from home, and some are in the office. The staff alternates from home and office as there are certain things that can only be completed at the office. Face-to-face communications have been reduced and there is a limited number of people that are able to be in the office at a given time.

During a conversation with a recent divorcee (who wishes to remain anonymous), regarding the process of a telephonic divorce proceeding they shared the following, “It was super-fast and easy. They had the final decree done in a day! The attorney’s handled all the paperwork, we just had to sign and scan some documents.”

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