The Arlington Bar Association issued a statement Friday afternoon that said clerks play a vital role in the courthouse “and are, on a day to day basis, at elevated risk as the centrality of their role in the judicial process presents a variety of exposures, both in and out of the courtroom. That any member of our community faces an unnecessary, or worse, an unknown, risk to their health, or the health of their families, is not a risk we are prepared to accept.”
Arlington County Board Chair Libby Garvey said she was distressed by the number of sick clerks and the possibility for further spread. She said she has not witnessed the circumstances firsthand but has been told by others that masks were not worn in the court when the coronavirus crisis hit locally and that the court did not significantly reduce its docket. Chief Judge George D. Varoutsos said masks were never discouraged and that hearings were held only for essential matters.
“I’m not in the court,” Garvey said Monday, “but I keep hearing from multiple sources that safety measures have been disregarded. All the evidence points to a very disturbing situation. I’m very concerned and have been for some time now.”
The bar’s juvenile court lawyers held a private meeting Friday night to discuss “the current crisis in the JDR Court,” according to an emailed invitation that went out to several lawyers. Two participants said many attorneys were concerned about the clerks and the possibility that the virus could spread. Bar President Donna Murphy declined to comment on the meeting, or whether the bar subsequently had any communication with the juvenile judges.
Then Monday night, the judges issued a letter detailing new ways for lawyers to connect to the court remotely. The letter did not discuss the clerks or the clerk’s office, which remained closed to the public Tuesday.
Across the region and the country, courthouses have dramatically limited in-person hearings and held others through video or audio links to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The Virginia Supreme Court in March issued an order requiring courts to drastically limit their in-person proceedings to essential matters.
Varoutsos said in an email to The Washington Post that dockets were reduced to essential matters, with “trials and hearings suspended or liberally continued.” But two clerks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared for their jobs, said many cases continued to be called. “We’ve consistently had two courts going, two dockets going,” one clerk said. A docket with 23 cases was scheduled for Thursday, though they appeared to be spaced out throughout the day.
Clerks said some lawyers such as those from the Arlington County Attorney’s office have been able to use an app to connect to the court electronically, and Arlington commonwealth’s attorneys and public defenders appeared in person for all hearings.
Varoutsos issued a letter to the Arlington Bar last week saying that the court “continues to work on arranging for remote hearings which has been in process since mid-March. As the Bar is aware there have been several setbacks in the establishment of the protocol and in its implementation.”
Virginia’s juvenile and domestic relations courts hear a wide variety of matters, including emergency protective orders for people battered by their partners, emergency placement orders for children from troubled homes, preliminary hearings for adults charged with crimes against family members, and bond and arraignment hearings. Arlington has two judges to hear all of it: Varoutsos and Robin Robb.
Varoutsos and Robb sent a letter to the Arlington Bar on June 8 saying that “a Staff Member in the Clerk’s Office” had tested positive for covid-19 and that another clerk has a presumptive positive test. The letter did not mention that two other clerks in the office previously had tested positive. They said the clerk’s office would be closed to the public until further notice.
Varoutsos, 71, has been on the Arlington juvenile court bench since 1998. He has launched various programs to improve the safety and future of county teens, such as bringing in volunteer court-appointed special advocates to represent children. He received the William L. Winston Award from the Arlington County Bar Foundation in the past year and is a member of the Yorktown High School hall of fame.
Marguarite Gooden, the former principal of New Directions Alternative High School in Arlington, said her daughter works in the clerk’s office and was afraid to go into the office every day. She said Varoutsos prohibited the clerks from wearing masks in the courtroom until late May, which Varoutsos denied. Lawyers who practice in the court, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they seek rulings from the judge regularly, said Varoutsos and the clerks did not wear masks in court for about two months.
“I was livid,” Gooden said. The all-female staff was struggling with child care during the pandemic, Gooden said, and the clerks were fearful they might bring the virus home to vulnerable family members.