Chief Justice Newby Sees Changes Great and Small For the Practice of Law in NC

February 18, 2021   |   Amber Nimocks

Chief Justice Paul Newby sketched out his vision for the North Carolina courts during a Zoom call on Thursday, describing a future where Monday calendar calls in superior court disappear, the Supreme Court breaks for lunch on hearing days and anyone with Internet access could watch oral arguments before the Supreme Court from a laptop or phone.

He made his remarks during a call with members of NCAJ and the N.C. Association of Defense Attorneys, a program jointly presented by the two groups.

Newby said some of the changes he foresees are borne of the pandemic, “the lemonade out of the lemons.”

And while he acknowledged that wider applications of video conferencing and virtual technology raise questions of due process, he said technological innovation has its blessings.

“The bench and the bar need ongoing opportunities to use the technology that has been explored and successfully employed in so many circumstances,” he said.

Newby said he was recently asked if he envisions superior courts returning to the days of the Monday calendar call.

“Do I ever see us going back to a Monday with everybody and his brother in a courtroom waiting to see what that case call is going to look like?” he said. “And I don’t know that I see that. It was certainly a throwback to a period of time when that might have been the best way to do it. That’s clearly not the best way now. It’s not good for the public. It’s not good for the lawyers. It’s not good for the judges.”

Another tradition that seems bound to expire: The Supreme Court sitting for five oral arguments in a row.

“For the first time ever my court took a lunch break this week during our cases,” Newby said. “Previously, we would go five hours-plus before we would take a lunch break, hearing all five cases.”

That made sense when lawyers had to travel to Raleigh on horseback from the mountains or the coast, he said. Those attorneys would need to be back in the saddle and on their way home as early as possible.

“We’re not at that point anymore,” he said. “I think the court can be more alert and better engaged if it takes a break sometime in the 12:30 to 1:30 range.”

Newby also said that the court will continue to provide video feed of arguments.

“When we go back to in-person at the Supreme Court, livestreaming will continue,” he said. “We are in a livestreaming world … You will be able to attend a Supreme Court hearing from the comfort of your own home. That’s a good thing. That’s an open court provision.”

Other changes Newby described included equipping jails and prisons with soundproof kiosks where defendants can communicate electronically with their lawyers and an appellate rules modification that would offer parties the opportunity to ask for a virtual hearing even after in-person court resumes.

“Let’s say you’ve got one lawyer in Murphy, one lawyer in Manteo. Do they want to drive? Do their clients want to pay for them to drive to Raleigh to have that live argument or are they just as comfortable doing it this way?”

In response to a question about district judges not wearing masks in court, Newby said he has instructed judges to follow COVID-prevention mask rules in place in their counties, as a matter of leadership.

“The question is ‘What is the courthouse protocol?’ ” he said. “We have to be leaders in following that protocol whether we agree with it or not.”

Newby said he has brought previously voiced concerns about courthouse safety to the attention of Gov. Cooper. Under N.C. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines, courthouse personnel are scheduled to be eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations on March 10.

He also said the he has informally suspended the rotation of superior court judges so that judges who are most familiar with their local courthouses and which practices are important for safety remain in place.

Concerning his legacy, Newby said he knows that it will be tied to how the courts implement technological changes over the next eight years, not just in response to the pandemic but also how it rolls out statewide e-filing systems. Pilot districts are scheduled to implement the process this summer.

But he hopes civility and fairness are just as much a part of the picture history paints of him.

“At the end of the day, I want my tenure to be one where folks say, ‘That guy did everything he could to ensure that justice was administered without favor, denial or delay’. ”