For the third time, the Supreme Court of Virginia has extended the declaration of judicial emergency that has been in effect since March 16. This extension modifies the original order; it will take effect May 18 and last through June 7. The modified order relaxes some of the restrictions that have been in place to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Since the judicial emergency was first put into place, courts throughout the state have been instructed toremain open but to delay all cases that are not deemed an “emergency.”
Judges were given discretion to determine whether a case is “urgent and must be heard without delay in order to protect important liberty and constitutional interests and the health and safety of the parties.”
While jury trials are still prohibited under the modified version of the emergency order, effective May 18 “all courts may hear in-person non-emergency matters if they determine it is safe to do so.” The modified order also said, “Courts shall continue to prioritize emergency matters” and use remote communication methods when possible.
The modified order keeps in place the provisions set forth in the declaration of judicial emergency that suspended the deadlines in the Speedy Trial Act, which sets the timelines for the commencement of jury trials.
Deputy Public Defender Ryan Ruzic said that, while he understands the difficulties caused by the pandemic and why jury trials would be especially problematic due to public health concerns, “the Constitution trumps convenience – it’s something they need to figure out.”
Even in cases not involving a jury trial, Ruzic said that some of his clients have spent more time in jail waiting for their case to be heard than they otherwise would. “When cases are delayed, people suffer,” he said, and emphasized that people awaiting a hearing have not been convicted of a crime and are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
During the pandemic, he said, “it is easy not to think about the people who are incarcerated … they are suffering the most.”
He said that courts in the past have been reluctant to allow cases to be heard over video conferencing or phone – “for good reason,” he said – but that, in his view, the decision to hear cases remotely during the pandemic has been a benefit in some instances.
However, he added that because the clients he represents have limited financial resources, they often lack the devices and internet access to participate remotely in an effective way. “They frequently don’t have the resources to set up [video conferencing],” he said.
Marie Washington, a Warrenton attorney who regularly represents clients in Fauquier County courts, said that many of her cases have been delayed. However, she said, urgent cases have been heard in a timely manner, usually over video conferencing or by phone.
“It’s been really cool to see everyone working together,” Washington said, adding, “the commonwealth’s attorney has been very good.”
The prohibition on jury trials does mean, she said, that some jury trials throughout the state will be delayed. “You really can’t get speedy justice right now,” she said, in regard to cases in which a client has a right to a trial by jury.
Fauquier County Circuit Court Chief Deputy Clerk Helen Zaleski declined to comment on the extension of the judicial emergency. “We refer you to that order setting out the court’s temporary procedures during this declaration of judicial emergency,” she said.
The commonwealth’s attorney for Fauquier County, Scott Hook, did not respond to a request for comment.