Backlogged area court systems might start seeing some relief beginning today.
Court dockets here and elsewhere have slowed considerably since the Virginia Supreme Court declared a judicial emergency in March as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With some exceptions, court hearings have been largely limited to bond hearings and emergencies, and hundreds of cases have been put off indefinitely.
Starting this Monday, the state will relax some restrictions and allow more in-person court hearings to proceed. Those hearings will not include jury trials, which remain on hold until at least June 8.
Area officials say the backlog will continue to grow even with the relaxed standards, though perhaps not as much as in recent weeks.
Judges have been given wide discretion to determine if it’s safe to proceed with particular cases.
“It may be a little different from what we’ve seen in recent weeks, but we’re still a ways from business as usual,” Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen said.
Stafford prosecutors have traditionally demanded jury trials for defendants charged with felony offenses, but Olsen acknowledged that the practice and others may have to be modified as attorneys sort through the numerous cases in the system.
He said his attorneys have been working with defense attorneys throughout the pandemic seeking potential resolutions to cases once the courts opened back up.
“This has forced everyone to reassess cases and the dangers that various people pose,” Olsen said. “Compromise is going to be a necessity.”
Still, at some point there will be a price to pay in making up time lost to the virus. Vic Mason, clerk of the circuit court in King George, expects his office to be playing catch-up for at least three to six months.
“It’s going to be a nightmare,” Mason said.
Olsen, whose office handles the area’s largest caseload, agrees there will be challenges. “It looks daunting, but right now I’m more worried about doing things safely than what the dockets are going to look like on the other side.”
King George Commonwealth’s Attorney Keri Gusmann prosecuted the only area jury trial to take place since the emergency was declared. That jury recommended six life sentences for a man convicted of molesting children.
One factor in the decision to move ahead with the March trial involved the defendant’s right to a speedy trial. Since then, the Supreme Court has temporarily suspended some of those rules regarding completing trials within certain time frames.
Throughout the area, visitors to area courthouse can continue to expect significant differences from the pre-pandemic procedures. Bailiffs will be checking temperatures of those entering the premises and asking questions intended to gauge the likelihood that someone has been in contact with the virus.
With few exceptions, attendance at court hearings will be limited to persons directly associated with the cases, and social distancing will be enforced throughout the buildings.
The local court offices will remain off-limits to the public for the most parts. Clerks say they will continue to find ways to get things done that the public needs.
For example, Fredericksburg Circuit Court employees have been providing curbside service for such things a probates and plat recordings, Clerk Jeff Small said.
“No one really knows exactly what’s going to happen,” Stafford clerk Kathy Sterne said. “We’re just trying to get back to normal as best we can.”