The Hon. Sam J. Ervin IV of the Supreme Court of North Carolina noted how “the courts are never going to be the same as they were before the pandemic” in a keynote address for an annual program hosted by the Elon Law Review.
The North Carolina Judicial Branch introduced new procedures and tactics to support the administration of justice in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, including changes to the state’s highest court.
From circulating draft opinions electronically to hearing appellate arguments via Zoom, both of which required justices to end longstanding practices that relied on paper and in-person discussions, the Supreme Court of North Carolina embraced technology in such a way that some updates are likely here to stay.
And the Hon. Sam J. Ervin IV believes that’s a good thing.
But as he noted in his keynote remarks on September 23 for the Elon Law Review’s 2022 symposium, bigger questions remain involving the courts and government authority: “To what extent are there limitations on the authority of the chief justice or the governor to enter emergency-related orders?”
Those questions were never settled in litigation that emerged from government shutdown orders, said Ervin, an associate justice on the Supreme Court of North Carolina since 2015. And they’ll likely be here should another public health threat emerge.
Nearly 200 lawyers, judges, students, and professors registered for “The Law of COVID-19: Courts, Education, and Civil Rights,” the theme of this autumn’s Elon Law Review Symposium. Students hosted their symposium virtually for the third time in as many years.
And as they heard in the keynote address, the pandemic influenced the court system in different ways on different levels with Ervin suggesting that trial courts were the most impacted by the move to remote operations. Courts are continuing to work through a backlog of cases that developed because of shutdowns.
Yet different parts of the state experienced the pandemic in different ways, Ervin said. Some communities were harder hit than others, and orders from two chief justices, at two points in time, both attempted to balance public health with offering courts the flexibility to conduct their business as local conditions warranted.
“We’ve learned to do some things differently and more efficiently than before, which I think have produced some improvements in the system already,” Ervin said. “The courts are never going to be the same as they were before the pandemic.”
Ervin has served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court of North Carolina following six years of service on the North Carolina Court of Appeals and a decade on the North Carolina Utilities Commission. Prior to his public service, Ervin spent 18 years in private practice in his hometown of Morganton, North Carolina, handling a wide variety of civil, criminal, and administrative matters, including numerous appeals.
Since joining the Supreme Court, Ervin has helped to decide more than 540 cases. He received a degree in history from Davidson College and his J.D. from Harvard University.
Ervin delivered his remarks as part of a named lecture honoring the late Michael Rich, a nationally recognized scholar of criminal law who died of cancer in 2016 while serving as the Jennings Professor and Emerging Scholar at Elon Law. He was introduced by Elon Law Interim Dean Alan Woodlief.
“In February 2020, I would never have imagined holding our Law Review symposium virtually on Zoom,” Woodlief said in his remarks. “What a difference two-and-a-half years and a global pandemic will make. Law schools, the courts, and our entire system of justice have been called on to adapt to new technology, a new world of remote work, and in some cases, new mindsets about our society and how things function.”
The Elon Law Review was established in 2008 as the student-run and student-edited scholarly journal of the Elon University School of Law. With each issue, the Elon Law Review strives to advance legal education and scholarship through the contribution of intelligent discussion and analysis of the law.
In addition to publishing an annual issue that examines novel and significant topics of legal scholarship, the Elon Law Review hosts its yearly symposium on an emerging topic in the legal community.
Additional panel discussions at the 2022 Symposium
“Educating Lawyers Through a Pandemic”
Moderated by Associate Professor Kathy Conner
- Luke Bierman, Professor of Law & Former Dean, Elon University School of Law
- Chrystal Clodomir, Assistant Professor of Law, Elon University School of Law
- Zoe Niesel, Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, St. Mary’s University School of Law
SUMMARY of DISCUSSION: Legal education had long integrated elements of online learning into coursework for years prior to the pandemic. What truly proved disruptive in March 2020 was the need to pivot exclusively online, virtually overnight. At the same time, the introduction of Zoom, WebEx, and Teams into law school classes often provided a benefit to many students who self-identify with learning disabilities. Now that a full generation of students has been exposed to online learning, there is an expectation – both in undergraduate courses and in law school – that online learning opportunities will be permanent, regardless of whether faculty wish to return to pre-COVID practices.
“Civil Rights in COVID: From Vaccines to Abortions”
Moderated by Associate Professor Patricia Perkins
- Lauren Brasil, Fair Housing Project, Legal Aid of North Carolina
- Lauren Hausman, Intellectual Property Attorney, Elon University Law School Alumna
SUMMARY of DISCUSSION: It can be argued that a common thread connects the topics of housing, reproductive health, vaccines, and shelter-in-place orders: Bodily autonomy. How much control can state or federal governments have over the choices an individual enjoys related to personal health? Can a landlord in a multi-unit building require tenants to be vaccinated? Where does the government overstep its authority by shutting down businesses or requiring people to wear masks? More questions promise to emerge as society confronts a rise in disability claims due to the lasting effects of COVID. While courts have repeatedly affirmed that persons with disabilities have the right to decide where and how they live, discrimination remains widespread, notably in housing with a lack of reasonable accommodations.
“The Courts: How COVID Affected the Application of Justice”
Moderated by Professor Steve Friedland
- Margaret Dudley, Supervising Attorney, Elon Law’s Emergency Legal Services Program
- Angela Upchurch, Professor of Law, Southern Illinois University School of Law
SUMMARY of DISCUSSION: The COVID-19 pandemic upended the way courts operate. Technology and remote access have become essential tools in the delivery of legal services, though it’s not without its downsides. It’s also been noted that people can be more contentious and less willing to compromise when they appear on the computer for negotiations rather than in person. Still, the need for access to the courts is imperative, and the ability to conduct business remotely will be a crucial part of resolving a backlog of cases that stem from the court shutdowns in the early months of the pandemic. COVID-19 also exacerbated pressure, emotional drain, and career burnout, leading to higher turnover in the legal profession, law enforcement, and social services – all of which diminish the application of justice.
Reflections from the Elon Law Review Symposium Editors
“This year’s symposium showcased the resiliency and innovation of the industry, while reflecting on the weaknesses found throughout the system that we had relied upon. Experts were invited to help us unpack new ideas and paradigms concerning the future of the legal field, while prompting important questions for the industry as professionals continue to navigate a post-COVID era. The Elon Law Review is incredibly grateful to all of the panelists and moderators who helped facilitate such a paramount discussion.” – Cameron Capp L’22, Chief Symposium Editor
“The symposium provided a wide-ranging discussion of how the pandemic disrupted and changed legal work. From justices to family lawyers to educators, panelists and speakers saw their jobs impacted in ways that still reverberate today. It was especially heartening to see the participation of so many lawyers at Elon, with not just educators, but alumni and practicing lawyers from main campus participating in the program.” – Jeffrey Hudgins L’22, Symposium Co-Editor
“The world looks so different today than it did several years ago and our goal with this symposium was to examine the ways that the pandemic and politics have impacted different identities. From the virtual cold calls in law school lectures and online child custody hearings to discussions about bodily autonomy, the topics of conversation covered affect everyone and we hope we were able to provide new perspectives as we move forward into a post-pandemic world.” – Jordan Lockhart ’17 L’22, Symposium Co-Editor