The North Dakota Supreme Court has issued an emergency order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in an effort to maintain judicial branch functions by granting district judges statewide jurisdiction to set bail. Additionally, any defendant facing a sentence of presumptive probation may plead guilty to the offense in writing.

Essentially, state court administrator Sally Holewa explained, judges will be able to set bail for people in their local jail, including those who have warrants from other counties, and any defendant facing a Class C Felony will now have the option to submit a written plea instead of making a court appearance, an option normally only available to defendants facing misdemeanor charges.

The emergency order comes amid a slate of changes made at the state and local levels to court operations in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the community.

The state supreme court first declared a state of judicial emergency on Monday, March 16, suspending all jury trials until after April 24. At least 26 county courthouses in the state have closed their doors to the public. The Grand Forks County Commissioners decided Wednesday, March 18, to close the Grand Forks County Courthouse effective Monday, March 23.

Northeast Central District Presiding Judge Donald Hager told the Herald that local judicial workers are working to scale back operations independently of the state. Thursday, March 19, all non-emergency court appearances were rescheduled for after May 4. Hearings that still have to be held are being conducted through interactive television and other remote means as often as possible, Hager said.

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"This afternoon, I should have had about maybe 25 cases at 1:30 p.m.," Hager said Thursday. "I canceled all those."

To avoid putting an undue burden on the jail population, Hager said alternatives to holding people, such as relaxing bonds, are being explored. All special court sessions, such as drug court and domestic violence court, have been suspended. Those defendants will be monitored by probation.

Though court operations have been scaled back to their bare bones, Hager said taking steps now is essential to ensure being able to operate through the pandemic.

"The worst thing that can happen is they simply close everybody down, right? The biggest fear is that you got all your workers in this courthouse that might get infected," Hager said. "You have a clerk of court office that works closely together. If something happens to that entire office where they're in quarantine, you got nobody to process the cases. If you look through the State's Attorneys office, they have a lot of people there who work in close quarters, and if something happens there, you're not going to get those cases out. So that's the worst thing that can happen, that it closes down to where we can't at least prosecute the criminal side of it."

Holewa said that no matter how dire the situation may get, the state supreme court will not suspend essential court functions.

"I mean, we have an obligation to provide court services by the constitution," she said. "To the extent that we can give you an alternative way to do that, we're going to do it."

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