The public will be able to view or hear most of the proceedings via the Web.
As social distancing restrictions continue, D.C. Superior Court is among the first courts in the Washington area to significantly expand virtual hearings beyond those for emergency matters, officials there said.
With 90 courtrooms across three buildings, D.C. Superior Court had about 10,000 visitors each weekday, Judge Robert E. Morin, the court’s chief judge, said in a recent telephone interview.
Since the court shut down the majority of its operations in mid-March, eight courtrooms have been open for virtual hearings in emergency jail detainment cases, juvenile arrest cases, domestic violence emergency matters and initial hearings for arrestees.
The court has now gotten additional equipment to stream hearings, allowing it to launch 11 additional courtrooms.
More hearings will be held in felony criminal cases. Those include preliminary hearings, in which judges decide if there is enough evidence for the case to move forward and whether defendants who are jailed should remain detained or be released with conditions that may include home confinement or monitoring.
The court is adding two technology-equipped courtrooms, making a total of five designated to handle divorce, custody and child support proceedings. There will be additional capacity for virtual mental health screenings, hearings involving protective orders and child abuse and neglect cases.
In civil cases, additional courtrooms will allow judges to move beyond the handful of emergency proceedings they currently conduct and hold pretrial motions and status hearings. The court will also be holding more probate cases.
Morin said that in civil cases, judges may schedule virtual trials as early as next month if both sides agree to allow the judge, and not a jury, to hear the evidence. Scheduling such bench trials virtually in criminal cases, Morin said, would be more difficult, because they often require coordinating more witnesses and ensuring that victims or their family members are present if desired.
The court will also be able to hold more adoption hearings and weddings.
Collaborating with various stakeholders during the first wave of resumption of operations was painstaking and challenging, Morin said. He said discussions involved judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, victim advocates and social service agencies.
“It’s very complicated; there are a lot of moving pieces,” Morin explained. “We have to be prepared for an increase in intervention and guardianship cases because of covid-19. We also have domestic violence, domestic relations, civil and criminal cases. We have to establish video connections with St. Elizabeths [the District’s psychiatric hospital] and coordinate video connections” with the city’s youth services for juvenile defendants and with the D.C. jail for adults.
One of the biggest challenges is ensuring that everyone involved in cases has access to the Internet on computers or smartphones. Morin said the courthouse worked with domestic violence groups, social advocates, legal aid services and a variety of legal groups to ensure that clients can participate.
Morin said that in criminal cases, the defendant and their attorney will decide between having a virtual hearing or waiting for an in-person hearing, which could be months away. Hearings with sworn witnesses will be conducted by video to allow for the observation of the witnesses’ demeanor and behavior during testimony, the court said. In other hearings, the defendant can decide whether the hearing will include video or only audio.
Even before the pandemic, the court had trouble keeping up with the volume of cases, and trials sometimes were set two to three years after an arrest. Part of the reason has been the nine open slots for judgeships, which require White House appointments and Senate confirmation.
In response to the closures caused by the pandemic, Morin signed a rarely used executive emergency order that temporarily relaxed the mandates on how quickly cases must move forward.
About 90 jury and bench trials for jailed defendants have had to be delayed since the start of the pandemic, according to court data provided by a spokeswoman. Between mid-March and last week, there were 159 new criminal cases in which defendants were ordered locked up in jail following their arrest. Cases involving jailed defendants often receive scheduling priority over cases in which defendants were released pending trial.
“It’s a real challenge. That’s why we are trying to open up the court to have the option to have remote proceedings to go forward,” Morin said.
At preliminary hearings for jailed defendants, inmates will participate from a secure room at the D.C. jail. The lawyers and judge will be on their computers. A witness, typically a detective who testifies about the initial evidence and allegations, would likely participate from a police station.
Defense attorneys said they will have to make sure any witnesses aren’t viewing unauthorized notes or being coached. “We’ll just have our attorneys ask if there is anyone else in the room with them,” said Janet E. Mitchell, special counsel for the District’s Public Defender Service.
Mitchell said that with no clear idea when criminal trials may restart, defense attorneys will seek to have many clients released from jail, with house arrest or GPS monitoring as possible alternatives.
Morin said proceedings normally open to the public and the media will continue to be accessible. Before the covid-19 reduction, people interested in a court case could search for it on the court’s website to learn when hearings were scheduled and then attend.
The biggest question for attorneys is when juries will return. Morin refused to give a time frame but said he had created a judicial task force that is examining what needs to be changed to allow the safe return of jurors for both Superior Court cases and grand jury proceedings. The group is expected to report its findings to Morin next month.
“It’s not knowable at this time,” Morin said. “At the very least, covid-19 must continue to recede, the mayor’s [social distancing] order must be lifted, and we must prepare our buildings for social distancing to keep the staff and the public safe. The timing of those factors is unknown.”
Morin said that additional computer equipment is arriving and that more courtrooms will open in coming weeks and months.
But overseeing operations within the courthouse in a post-pandemic climate will fall on a new chief. After four years, Morin, 67, announced in April that he is retiring as the court’s chief. He said he plans to work with his successor on ensuring a smooth transition.