North Carolina Judge Charles Gilchrist is under fire this week for sending prospective juror Gregory Hahn into custody for contempt after he refused to wear a mask. There is no mask mandate at the courthouse and the state mandate was lifted months ago. The controversy highlights a conflict between a health policy set for the court system as a whole and the individual authority of judges over their courtrooms.
Visitors are told that wearing masks at the courthouse is optional in North Carolina and Hahn declined to do so. Hahn is a Navy Veteran who reportedly served as a member of the President’s Honor Guard at Arlington National Cemetery. However, clerks told his jury pool that Judge Gilchrist personally required masks in his courtroom.
Judge Gilchrist informed Hahn that the penalty for contempt could be a $500 fine and 30 days in prison. When Hahn still refused to put on a mask, he was sent to jail for 24 hours at the Harnett County jail.
The order applying to the entire court system stated categorically that this decision will be left to employees and visitors rather than individual judges.
Judges generally have authority for most conditions in their courtrooms and the refusal to comply with a valid order can be grounds for contempt. However, there is no reference to that discretion in the court-wide order making masks optional.
The question is the health basis for the order. Hahn could comply with the order by simply wearing a paper surgical mask rather than a N95 mask despite the fact that such masks are viewed as largely ineffective. The CDC no longer advocates mandatory mask wearing even on mass transportation.
Yet, the change in the mask policies in North Carolina has left it up to individual citizens to decide if they want to wear masks for their own protection. Courts must decide if judges should be able to depart from those guidelines in the imposition of a mask mandate on a courtroom by courtroom basis — or whether the court as a whole should decide such public health guidelines.
Judge Gilchrist sits on Judicial District 11A of the North Carolina 3rd Superior Court Division. He was first selected in 2012 and his current term ends on December 31, 2028. (The North Carolina Superior Courts are split into five divisions and 48 districts and judges rotate among the districts in their given division every six months).