The Supreme Court of South Carolina
RE: Operation of the Trial Courts During the Coronavirus EmergencyAppellate Case No. 2020-000447
(a) Purpose. The purpose of this order is to provide guidance on the continued operation of the trial courts during the current coronavirus (COVID-19) emergency. The measures contained in this order are intended to allow essential operations to continue while minimizing the risk to the public, litigants, lawyers and court employees.
In the past, the South Carolina Judicial Branch has shown great resilience in responding to hurricanes, floods, and other major disasters, and this Court is confident that the same will be true in this emergency. This emergency, however, differs from these prior emergencies in many aspects. The current emergency will significantly impact every community in South Carolina while the prior emergencies, although potentially horrific for the individuals and communities directly impacted, did not. The impact of the prior emergencies could be minimized or avoided by traveling away from the site of the disaster; this is not the case for the current emergency. Further, in the prior emergencies, the circumstances giving rise to the emergency involved a single event with a beginning and a predictable end. This is not the case for the coronavirus, and even conservative estimates indicate the direct impacts of this pandemic will continue for many months.
In light of the extraordinary challenges presented by the current emergency, this Court finds it necessary to supplement and, in some situations, to alter significantly, the current practices regarding the operation of the trial courts. In the event of a conflict between this order and the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure (SCRCP), the South Carolina Rules of Criminal Procedure (SCRCrimP), the South Carolina Rules of Family Court (SCRFC), the South Carolina Rules of Probate Court (SCRPC), the South Carolina Rules of Magistrates Court (SCRMC), the South Carolina Court-Annexed Alternative Dispute Resolution Rules (SCADR), South Carolina Rules of Evidence (SCRE) or any other rule or administrative order regarding the operation of a trial court, this order shall control.
(b) Terminology. The following terminology is used in this order.
(1) Judge: a judge of the circuit court, family court, probate court, magistrate court and municipal court, including masters-in-equity and special referees.
(2) Remote Communication Technology: technology such as video conferencing and teleconferencing which allows audio and/or video to be shared at differing locations in real time.
(3) Summary Court: the magistrate and municipal courts.
(4) Trial Court: the circuit court (including masters-in-equity court), family court, probate court, magistrate court and municipal court.
(c) General Guidance. This section provides general guidance applicable to all trial courts or to several court types, and later sections will provide guidance that is limited to one court type. While this order remains in effect, the following general guidance shall apply:
(1) Jury Trials. All jury selections and jury trials in all criminal and civil cases are continued until further notice.
(2) Non-Jury Trials. The appropriate Chief Judge for Administrative Purposes, or in the case of any court that does not have a Chief Judge for Administrative Purposes, the appropriate judge responsible for scheduling matters, may authorize a non-jury trial to occur if the parties consent, or the matter involves an emergency or other circumstance warranting immediate resolution. To proceed, the Chief Judge or the appropriate judge responsible for scheduling matters must find that the trial can be conducted in a manner to minimize the risk such as limiting the persons present to the parties, counsel and necessary witnesses, or that the trial may be conducted using remote communication technology to avoid the need for a physical appearance of all or some of the parties, counsel or witnesses. If an in-person non-jury trial is conducted, only attorneys, the parties, and necessary witnesses will be allowed to appear. Hearings must be staggered to minimize the number of people appearing at the same time.
(3) Hearings. A hearing on a motion or other matter may be conducted using remote communication technology to avoid the need for a physical appearance by any party, witness or counsel. Only if a judge determines that the hearing cannot be conducted adequately using remote communication technology and the matter involves an emergency or other circumstance warranting immediate determination, will an in-person hearing be conducted. If an in-person hearing is conducted, only attorneys, the parties, and necessary witnesses will be allowed to appear. The total number of participants should not exceed ten (10) people. Hearings must be staggered to minimize the number of people appearing at the same time.
(4) Minimizing Hearings on Motions. While the practice has been to conduct hearings on virtually all motions, this will not be possible during this emergency. If, upon reviewing a motion, a judge determines that the motion is without merit, the motion may be denied without waiting for any return or other response from the opposing party or parties. In all other situations except those where a motion may be made on an ex parte basis, a ruling shall not be made until the opposing party or parties have had an opportunity to file a return or other response to the motion. A trial judge may elect not to hold a hearing when the judge determines the motion may readily be decided without further input from the lawyers. If a hearing is held, the hearing shall be conducted in the manner specified by (c)(3) above. Consent motions should be decided without a hearing; in the event a party believes that the order issued exceeds the scope of the consent, the party must serve and file a motion raising that issue within ten (10) days of receiving written notice of entry of the order.
(5) Determination of Probable Cause Following Warrantless Arrest. When a warrantless arrest has occurred, the arresting officer shall provide the appropriate judge with an affidavit setting forth the facts on which the warrantless arrest was made within eight (8) hours of the arrest. The judge shall consider this affidavit and, if appropriate, may have the officer or others supplement the affidavit with sworn testimony given over the telephone or other remote communication technology. The judge may administer any necessary oath using the telephone or other remote communication technology. If the judge finds a lack of probable cause for the arrest, the defendant shall be released. The goal is to have this determination of probable cause be made within twenty-four (24) hours of the arrest. Only in the most extraordinary and exceptional circumstances should this determination not be made within forty-eight (48) hours of the arrest. If this determination is not made within forty-eight (48) hours after arrest, the judge making the determination shall explain in writing the facts and circumstances giving rise to this delay, and a copy of this explanation shall be provided to the Office of Court Administration.
(6) Preliminary Hearings in Criminal Cases. Until further order of this Court, preliminary hearings will not be conducted.
(7) Remote Administration of Oaths. Where this order authorizes a hearing, trial or other matter to be conducted using remote communication technology, any oath necessary during that hearing, trial or other matter may be administered by the same remote communication technology. While it is preferable that the person administering the oath have both audio and visual communication with the person taking the oath, the oath may be administered if only audio communication is available, provided the person administering the oath can reasonably verify the identity of the person taking the oath. Notaries who are authorized to administer oaths may administer oaths utilizing remote communication technology in the case of depositions. Nothing in this order shall be construed as authorizing remote administration of oaths for any other purpose than those contained in this order.
(8) Scheduling Orders. All deadlines under all existing scheduling orders are hereby extended for forty-five (45) days following the date on which the Governor lifts or rescinds the emergency orders relating to the coronavirus emergency. This does not prevent a judge from issuing a new scheduling order, if appropriate.
(9) Extensions of Time and Forgiveness of Procedural Defaults.
(A) Extensions of Time. This crisis will increase the need for extensions to be granted. While this order remains in effect, no filing fee will be required for a motion for an extension for any motion filed on or after the date of this order. Further, since it is important for lawyers and self-represented litigants appearing before the trial courts to have time to take actions to protect themselves and their families, the due dates for all trial court filings due on or after the effective date of this order are hereby extended for thirty (30) days.
(B) Forgiveness of Procedural Defaults Since March 13, 2020. In the event a party to a case or other matter pending before a trial court was required to take certain action on or after March 13, 2020, but failed to do so, that procedural default is hereby forgiven, and the required action shall be taken within thirty (30) days of the date of this order. If a dismissal or other adverse action has been taken, that adverse action shall be rescinded.
(C) Extensions by Consent. The provision in Rule 6(b), SCRCP, which permits the granting of only one extension of time by agreement of counsel, is suspended. Counsel may agree to further extensions of time without seeking permission from the court, and parties are strongly encouraged to do so upon request.
(D) Limitation. The provisions of (A) thru (C) above shall not extend or otherwise affect the time for taking action under Rules 50(b), 52(b), 59, and 60(b), SCRCP, or Rule 29, SCRCrimP. Further, these provisions do not extend or otherwise affect the time for the serving of a notice of appeal under the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules, or the time to appeal from a lower court to the circuit court.
(10) Alternatives to Court Reporters and Digital Courtrooms. A trial or hearing in the court of common pleas (including the master-in-equity court), the court of general sessions or the family court is usually attended by a court reporter (before the master-in-equity this is usually a private court reporter) or is scheduled in one of the digital courtrooms with a court reporter or court monitor. While every effort will be made to continue these practices, this may not be possible as this emergency progresses. In the event such resources are not reasonably available, a trial or hearing authorized under this order may proceed if a recording (preferably both audio and video) is made. The judge shall conduct the proceedings in a manner that will allow a court reporter to create a transcript at a later date. This would include, but is not limited to, making sure the names and spelling of all of the persons speaking or testifying are placed on the record; ensuring exhibits or other documents referred to are clearly identified and properly marked; controlling the proceeding so that multiple persons do not speak at the same time; and noting on the record the start times and the time of any recess or adjournment.
(A) Filings. To the extent possible, courthouses should remain open to accept filings and payments, and to report criminal information to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the National Crime Information Center. For the acceptance of documents or payments submitted by delivery to the courthouse, this may be accomplished by providing access to a portion of the courthouse even if the rest of the courthouse is closed to the public; providing an alternate location where the documents or payments may be delivered; or by providing a drop box where filings may be deposited. Adequate signage should be provided at the courthouse to alert persons about how to make filings by delivery, and this information should also be posted to the court's website, if available.
(B) Closure. In the event of the closure of a courthouse, information about the closure shall be provided by signage at the courthouse, and on the court's website if available.
(C) Quarantine of Incoming Paper Documents. To protect the safety of the staff of the trial courts, incoming paper documents, whether delivered or mailed to the trial court, may be quarantined for a period of up to forty-eight (48) hours once the documents are physically received by the trial court.1 Once the quarantine period has ended, these documents will be file stamped with the date on which they were received, and court staff will then process the documents.
(12) Statute of Limitations, Repose and Other Similar Statutes. This Court is aware this emergency has already affected the ability of litigants to commence legal actions and this adverse impact will most likely increase significantly as this pandemic progresses. The Judicial Branch has raised this concern to the leadership of the General Assembly as this issue relates to the statute of limitations, statutes of repose and similar statutes such as S.C. Code Ann. § 15-36-100. While this Court has recognized the existence of judicial authority to toll a statute of limitations in other situations, it would be inappropriate for this Court to consider at this time what relief, if any, may be afforded to a litigant who is unable to file a civil action or take other actions under these statutory provisions due to this emergency.
(13) Service Using AIS Email Address. A lawyer admitted to practice law in this state may serve a document on another lawyer admitted to practice law in this state using the lawyer's primary email address listed in the Attorney Information System (AIS).2 For attorneys admitted pro hac vice, service on the associated South Carolina lawyer under this method of service shall be construed as service on the pro hac vice attorney; if appropriate, it is the responsibility of the associated lawyer to provide a copy to the pro hac vice attorney. For documents that are served by email, a copy of the sent email shall be enclosed with the proof of service, affidavit of service, or certificate of service for that document. This method of service may not be used for the service of a summons and complaint, subpoena, or any other pleading or document required to be personally served under Rule 4 of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, or for any document subject to mandatory e-filing under Section 2 of the South Carolina Electronic Filing Policies and Guidelines. In addition, the following shall apply:
(A) Documents served by email must be sent as an attachment in PDF or a similar format unless otherwise agreed by the parties.
(B) Service by email is complete upon transmission of the email. If the serving party learns the email did not reach the person to be served, the party shall immediately serve the pleading or paper by another form of service in Rule 5(b)(1), SCRCP, or other similar rule, together with evidence of the prior attempt at service by email.
(C) In those actions governed by the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, Rule 6(e), SCRCP, which adds five days to the time a party has the right or is required to do some act or take some proceedings within a prescribed period after the service of a notice or other paper upon him and the notice or paper is served upon him by mail, shall also apply when service is made by email under this provision.
(D) Lawyers are reminded of their obligation under Rule 410(g), SCACR, to ensure that their AIS information is current and accurate at all times.
(14) Signatures of Lawyers on Documents. A lawyer may sign documents using "s/[typed name of lawyer]," a signature stamp, or a scanned or other electronic version of the lawyer's signature. Regardless of form, the signature shall still act as a certificate under Rule 11, SCRCP, that the lawyer has read the document; that to the best of the lawyer's knowledge, information, and belief there is good ground to support it; and that the document is not interposed for delay.
(15) Optional Filing Methods. During this emergency, clerks of the trial courts may, at their option, permit documents to be filed by electronic methods such as fax and email. If the clerk elects to do so, the clerk will post detailed information on the court's website regarding the procedure to be followed, including any appropriate restrictions, such as size limitations, which may apply. Documents filed by one of these optional filing methods shall be treated as being filed when received by the clerk of court and a document received on or before 11:59:59 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, shall be considered filed on that day. These optional filing methods shall not be used for any document that can be e-filed under the South Carolina Electronic Filing Policies and Guidelines. If a trial court does not have a clerk of court, the court shall determine whether to allow the optional filing methods provided by this provision.
(16) Certification in Lieu of Affidavit. If a statute, court rule or other provision of law requires an affidavit to be filed in an action, the requirement of an affidavit may be satisfied by a signed certification of the maker stating, "I certify that the foregoing statements made by me are true. I am aware that if any of the foregoing statements made by me are willfully false, I am subject to punishment by contempt."(d) Court of General Sessions. The following additional guidance is provided regarding the Court of General Sessions:
(1) Rule 3(c), SCRCrimP. Based on this emergency, the ninety (90) day period provided by Rule 3(c), SCRCrimP, is hereby increased to one-hundred and twenty (120) days.
(2) County Grand Juries. While a physical meeting of the members of the county grand jury shall not be held, the Solicitor or the Attorney General is hereby authorized to present an indictment to the grand jury using remote communication technology such as video conferencing and teleconferencing, and any necessary oath may be administered using this same remote communication technology pursuant to (c)(7) above.
(3) Guilty Pleas. If consented to by both the defendant and the prosecutor, a hearing on a guilty plea may be held subject to the standards specified in (c)(3) above. If the defendant will participate by remote communication technology, the trial court must make a determination that the defendant is knowingly and intelligently waiving his right to be physically present for the plea. If the defendant's counsel will participate by remote communication technology, the trial court must determine that the defendant is knowingly and intelligently waiving any right to have counsel physically present, and the court must ensure that the defendant has the ability to consult privately with counsel during the plea proceeding as may be necessary. Finally, if other persons will address the court or testify during the plea proceedings by remote communication technology, the court must find that the defendant is knowingly and intelligently waiving any right to have those persons physically present for the plea.
(e) Court of Commons Pleas. The following additional guidance is provided regarding the Court of Common Pleas, including the Master-in-Equity Courts:(f) Family Court. The following additional guidance is provided regarding the Family Court:
(1) Isolation and Quarantine Orders. As this pandemic continues, it is possible the provisions of the South Carolina Emergency Health Powers Act, S.C. Code Ann. §§ 44-4-100 to 44-4-570, may be triggered as it relates to isolation and quarantine orders. Therefore, the Chief Judges for Administrative Purposes for Common Pleas should familiarize themselves with the procedures for judicial review and petitions under that Act, most notably section 44-5-540, and begin to formulate a strategy to meet the timelines specified in that statute for judicial action.
(2) Procedural Guidance Regarding Filing. While the trial court case management system does not have a case type and subtype for these matters, the clerks of court should use "Nature of Action Code 699 (Special/Complex Other)" for these matters, and these matters will be exempt from any ADR requirement. Detailed instructions for attorneys to Electronically File in these cases are available at https://www.sccourts.org/efiling/ARGs/ARG-26%20Quarantine%20Petitions.pdf. It is also anticipated that all of these hearings will be conducted using remote communication technology. In coordination with the Pro Bono Program of the South Carolina Bar, a list of lawyers willing to serve as counsel for individuals or groups of individuals who are or are about to be isolated and quarantined under section 44-5-540(F), has been compiled.
(1) Granting of Uncontested Divorces. The Family Court may grant an uncontested divorce without holding a hearing where:
(A) The parties submit written testimony in the form of affidavits or certifications of the parties and corroborating witnesses that address jurisdiction and venue questions, date of marriage, date of separation, the impossibility of reconciliation and the alleged divorce grounds.
(B) The written testimony must include copies of the parties' and witnesses' state-issued photo identifications.
(C) Any decree submitted by any attorney shall be accompanied by a statement, as an officer of the court, that all counsel approve the decree and that all waiting periods have been satisfied.
(D) Should either party request a name change in connection with a request for divorce agreement approval, that party shall submit written testimony to the Family Court in the form of an affidavit or certification addressing the appropriate questions for name change and the name which he or she wishes to resume. This relief shall be included in any proposed Order submitted to the Court for approval at the time of the submission of the documents related to the relief requested.
(2) Approval of Settlement Agreements and Consent Orders without a Hearing.
(A) General Orders. Consent orders resolving all matters, regardless of whether filed or heard prior to or after the declaration of this public health emergency, may be issued without the necessity of holding a hearing. Examples include consent orders resolving motions to compel, discovery disputes, motions to be relieved as counsel, or consent Orders appointing a Guardian ad Litem or addressing Guardian ad Litem fee caps. Any proposed order or agreement must be signed by the parties, counsel for the parties, and the Guardian ad Litem, if one has been appointed.
(B) Temporary Orders. Temporary consent orders resolving all matters, regardless of whether filed or heard prior to or after the declaration of this public health emergency, may be issued without requiring a hearing. Any proposed order or agreement must be signed by the parties, counsel for the parties, and the Guardian ad Litem, if one has been appointed, and may be submitted and issued without the necessity of filing supporting affidavits, financial declarations or written testimony.
(C) Final Orders. Final consent orders approving final agreements in all matters, regardless of whether filed or heard prior to or after the declaration of this public health emergency, may be issued without requiring a hearing. These final consent orders include marital settlement agreements, custody and visitation settlement agreements and enforcement agreements. Any proposed order or agreement must be signed by the parties, counsel for the parties, and the Guardian ad Litem, if one has been appointed.
These Consent Orders shall be submitted together with all of the following:
(i) The final agreement, such as a marital settlement agreement, signed by the attorneys and the parties.
(ii) Updated signed Financial Declarations for each party.
(iii) An affidavit or certification from the Guardian ad Litem, if one has been appointed, addressing the best interests of the children.
(iv) Written testimony of all parties in the form of affidavit or certification addressing and answering all questions the Family Court would normally ask the parties on the record, including but not limited to affirmations from the parties that:
a. The party has entered into the Agreement freely and voluntarily, understands the Agreement, and desires for the Agreement to be approved by the Court, without the necessity of a hearing.
b. Setting forth the education level obtained by the party, the employment status of the party and the health of the party.
c. There are no additional agreements, and neither party has been promised anything further than that set out in the Agreement.
d. The party fully understands the financial situation of each of the parties, the underlying facts, terms and effect of the Agreement.
e. The party has given and received full financial disclosure.
f. The party has had the benefit of an experienced family law attorney.
g. The party has had the opportunity to ask any questions relating to procedures and the effect of the Agreement.
h. The party is not acting under coercion or duress, and the party is not under the influence of any alcohol or drug.
i. That the Agreement is fair and equitable, it was reached by the parties through arms-length negotiations by competent attorneys and the agreement represents some sacrifices and compromises by each party.
j. The Agreement is in the best interests of the children, if there are any.
k. That the parties have entered into a marital settlement agreement in full and final settlement of all issues arising from the marriage which have been raised or which could have been raised in the proceeding, other than issues relating to grounds for divorce.
l. The party is aware of the applicable contempt sanctions associated with non-compliance.
(D) Consent Orders under S.C. Code Ann. § 63-7-1700(D). Where all the parties consent and the Family Court determines a child may be safely maintained in the home in that the parent has remedied the conditions that caused the removal, and the return of the child to the child's parent would not cause an unreasonable risk of harm to the child's life, physical health, safety, or mental well-being, the Family Court may order the child returned to the child's parent without holding a hearing.
(3) Hearings Generally. With respect to all contested hearings in family court, including agency matters and private actions, both temporary and permanent, all hearings should be conducted in accordance with section (c)(3) of this order.
(g) Probate Court. The following additional guidance is provided:
Certification in Lieu of Affidavit. In the probate court, the certificate in section (c)(16) may also be used for a marriage license application under S.C. Code Ann.§ 20-1-230, including any application which may be submitted electronically, or for any of the probate court forms available at www.sccourts.org/forms which are either an affidavit or require an oath or affirmation to be administered.
(h) Summary Court. The following additional guidance is provided regarding the Summary Courts:
(1) Bond Hearings in Criminal Cases. Bond hearings, which shall be conducted in the manner specified by (c)(3) above, should be held at least once a day. In addition to the normal factors for determining whether the defendant will be required to post a bond or will be released on a personal recognizance, the judge should consider the need to minimize the detention center population during this emergency. Further, judges should consider home detention or other options to help reduce detention center population. The summary court shall uphold victims' rights in accordance with the South Carolina Constitution, including seeking to ensure that a victim advocate/notifier is available for all bond hearings, subject to the rights of the defendant under the United States Constitution and the South Carolina Constitution.
(2) Transmission of Warrants for General Sessions Offenses. Warrants for general sessions offenses shall continue to be forwarded to the clerk of the court of general sessions as provided for Rule 3, SCRCrimP. As to an arrest warrant for a defendant who is already in the custody of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, or a detention center or jail in South Carolina, this Court hereby authorizes these defendants to be served with the warrant by mail. Therefore, if it is determined that the defendant is already in custody, the judge shall annotate the warrant to reflect that a copy has been mailed to the defendant, mail a copy of the annotated warrant to the defendant, and immediately forward the annotated warrant and any allied documents to the clerk of the court of general sessions for processing under Rule 3, SCRCrimP.
(3) Guilty Pleas. If consented to by both the defendant and the prosecutor, a hearing on a guilty plea may be held by the summary court. If the defendant will participate by remote communication technology, the trial court must make a determination that the defendant is knowingly and intelligently waiving his right to be physically present for the plea. If the defendant's counsel will participate by remote communication technology, the trial court must determine that the defendant is knowingly and intelligently waiving any right to have counsel physically present, and the court must ensure that the defendant has the ability to consult privately with counsel during the plea proceeding as may be necessary. Finally, if other persons will address the court or testify during the plea proceedings by remote communication technology, the court must find that the defendant is knowingly and intelligently waiving any right to have those persons physically present for the plea.
(i) Effective Date and Revocation of Prior Order and Memoranda. This order is effective immediately. It shall remain in effect until modified or rescinded by this Court. This order replaces the following order and memoranda previously issued.
(1) Memoranda of the Chief Justice dated March 16, 2020, which are labeled as "Trial Courts Coronavirus Memo," and "Summary Courts Coronavirus Memo."
(2) Order dated March 18, 2020, and labeled "Statewide Family Court Order."
1 One scientific study has reported that the coronavirus can live for up to 24 hours on cardboard. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.03.09.20033217v1.full.pdf.
2 The email addresses for lawyers admitted in South Carolina can be accessed utilizing the Attorney Information Search at: https://www.sccourts.org/attorneys/dspSearchAttorneys.cfm.
s/Donald W. Beatty C.J.
s/John W. Kittredge J.
s/Kaye G. Hearn J.
s/John Cannon Few J.
s/George C. James, Jr. J.
Columbia, South Carolina
April 3, 2020