Columbus County’s Hallsboro satellite court is the first of its kind in North Carolina, state and local court officials said.
The closed Hallsboro Middle school campus became a full-service courthouse Thursday for the first time, with district court being held in two buildings. Traffic cases, parole violations and first appearances via video were among the business on the docket.
“Columbus County is the first in the state to make use of technology to this degree in a satellite courthouse completely removed from the county seat,” Clerk of Superior court Jess Hill said. State officials form the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) inspected the operation Wednesday before giving the final go ahead for district sessions at the school.
Hallsboro Middle was closed at the end of this past school year due to consolidation in the county school system. When cases began to back up due to courts being closed for the pandemic, State Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley ordered all resident superior court judges to find facilities to allow for social distancing.
Child support was scheduled to be held in the annex Thursday and Friday.
Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Doug Sasser worked out a deal between the county schools, county administration and sheriff’s office to use the shuttered HMS campus as a court facility. While sessions are being held in the former cafeteria and media center right now, additional court space is available in the gymnasium, as is being done in Bladen County at Elizabethtown Middle School. The county’s agreement with the school system requires that court sessions in the gym be finished before afternoon youth sporting events — if athletics are allowed this fall.
Hill said court will be held in Hallsboro Monday through Thursday most weeks, hopefully cutting down on the backlog of cases. More than1,000 traffic cases are scheduled for court this month.
Assistant Superintendent of County Schools Jonathan Williams was on campus Thursday to see how the joint project was working. He said the school system was pleased to be able to help.
“You hate closing a school,” he said, “but in this case, we were glad to have the facility available to help the community. It’s better for a building to be used than to sit vacant. Everyone has really done an amazing job of coming together own this.”
Respondents headed for court in Hallsboro first stop at a check-in table, were staff from the District Attorney’s office determines if the person is a witness, a victim or a defendant. Individuals then enter the courtrooms, which can hold around 80 people, and after passing through a metal detector and sanitizing station, wait to be called.
District Attorney Jon David said his office is working to clear cases that can be put off or do not need to be tried.
“From the ‘triage tables’, we can direct people where they need to go, so there’s less chance of unnecessary contact,” David explained. “The table helps us filter those coming to court, and right now it looks very successful.”
David emphasized that his office is not dismissing cases just to clear the calendars due to the COVID pandemic.
“We are not sacrificing justice on the altar of efficiency or COVID-19,” David said. “We’re still trying cases. But minor cases that don’t necessarily need time in a courtroom, we’re doing what we can to move them on through.”
Around 120 cases were on Thursday’s calendar, Hill said. Video first appearances were also held for several defendants.
Hill pointed out that having the ability to do video first appearances saves time and safety concerns for the sheriff’s office.
“We have had this system approved by the courts,” he said. “This way, the sheriff’s office doesn’t have to take theme to move a prisoner from the jail to Hallsboro, then back to jail. It’s safer and more efficient for everyone. We’re still having court — it’s just being done differently. We’re still in the business of ensuring equal justice under the law. That hasn’t changed.”
The session is also unusual due to the men on the bench in each courtroom — Judge Robert Still of Fayetteville and Judge John Jolly are both retired, but returned to the bar this week to help with the caseload. District Court Judge Bill Fairley recently retired from the bench, and Judge Jason Disbrow is serving out the term held by the late Superior Court Judge Ola Lewis in Brunswick County.
Sasser last week thanked everyone for there work on the satellite cost facility, and said it was possible the campus may still be in use post-COVID.
“If this works, I could see it going on,” Sasser said.
In light of a new order approved Thursday by Beasley and the state AOC, Hallsboro may see even more sessions than anticipated in the near future.
Citing the continuing delays due to the pandemic, Beasley ordered Thursday that superior court judges find ways to start holding jury trials again by Sept. 1. Sasser pointed out early in the planning process for the satellite courts that to effectively and legally hold a jury trial in the Columbus County annex, at least tree courtrooms will be required for witness seating, overflow and a jury room that would allow proper social distancing.
Hill praised all the departments and agencies involved, and said the courthouse could not have happened without great cooperation.
“We came together and built a courthouse in two weeks,” he said. “Not everybody can say that.”