DC judges respond to mayor’s accusation of a lack of urgency to justice

D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring
D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring says 25 courtrooms are open, but half of those are hearing cases virtually. Judge Juliet McKenna, on the right, who leads the criminal division said that courtrooms will be fully operational in September. (WTOP/Megan Cloherty)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is uncomfortable with the pace of justice at D.C. superior courts, which is deciding its own pace in reopening from the pandemic.

A day after Bowser said that there is a delay in justice for victims and defendants, and the District’s justice system isn’t working at full capacity, court leaders took the rare step to respond.

“I feel as the chief judge, to ensure that our judges who are working hard and are understood to be doing so. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to let stand information that suggests that the court is not open and hasn’t been working,” Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring said.

Courts are partially open with a plan to fully reopen the criminal division in September, but with two out of the normal five grand juries operating, limiting indictments and some 10,200 criminal cases pending as of June 2021, Bowser said it can’t come soon enough.

“I have great respect for the chief judge and all the judges, but I also feel a sense of urgency that I wish they would share,” Bowser said after hearing their response.

Part of that urgency comes from intelligence shared by police that some defendants who were arrested and charged in the last year-and-a-half were released only to reoffend.

“I think it’s an overly simplistic analysis to suggest that one entity alone is responsible for the crime that’s happening in the city. Obviously, we don’t release people with the intent they’re going to commit a crime,” Josey-Herring said.

In a news conference Wednesday, D.C. police Chief Robert Contee joined Bowser in expressing frustration with the partially open courts. Contee said reducing the backlog in cases will help make the city safer.

“I think it will address many of the concerns that we are having in community,” he said. “Will it stop it? Will we not have one [shooting]? You know I wouldn’t take it that far to say that, but what I do know based upon my experiences is that when we see these individuals who have repeatedly committed violent crimes (in the) community back on the street, they’re not getting jobs. They’re out here doing what they do, and there’s something that we need to do as community in response to that,” he said.

While rising crime is concerning, Josey-Herring said she also had to weigh the safety of court staff and anyone coming into the building. So far, they say there is no issue with seating juries and residents responding to summons due to COVID-19.

“I understand the urgency, given the level of crime in the city and the nature of it to get back to full operations. But our job is not to put people at risk because there is a need to get back to full operations,” Josey-Herring said.

Judge Juliet McKenna, who oversees the court’s criminal division, underscored the message that the courts are open.

“The Criminal Division, in particular, has been working tirelessly, tirelessly with our criminal justice partners in order to fulfill the critical functions of the criminal justice system. … notwithstanding the pandemic, we have closed close to 7,500 cases. And many of those include felony matters. We’ve conducted close to 10,000 arraignments. We’ve processed over 6,000 arrests and search warrants. We’ve conducted countless hearings and offered multiple opportunities for people to resolve their cases through diversion agreements through plea agreements and sentencings,” McKenna said.

Compounding the problem of the case backlog, D.C. has 10 judicial vacancies as the city awaits nominees to get Congressional confirmation; therefore, fewer judges to hear cases at this point.

“We definitely need more judges. we are down 10 judges, and that was hurting us even before COVID hit. And so that is a continuing problem. And if that can be addressed, obviously, we will be in a much better position to dig out,” Josey-Herring said.

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Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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