Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: COVID-19 and the courthouse

Justice Matters with Bryan Porter: COVID-19 and the courthouse
Bryan Porter in his office at the Alexandria Courthouse. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

The COVID-19 virus continues to wreak havoc on Alexandria courthouse functions. While the length of dockets and the pace of courtroom hearings has significantly increased over the summer, we are still a long way from a normal state of affairs. Anecdotally, it is fair to say courthouse operations continue on a slow, upward trend toward a regular schedule.

The courthouse remains open for business between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and it is a point of pride that the courthouse was never entirely closed – even at the onset of the pandemic. Earlier this summer, vaccinated employees received a brief respite from masks, but the swell in cases caused by the Delta variant soon changed that.

Currently, by order of the chief judge of the Circuit Court, anyone who enters the courthouse is required to wear a mask. This includes my employees, who must be masked in any public area. Although not a COVID-19 related rule, readers are reminded cellphones are generally not allowed in the courthouse. Phone lockers located in the lobby vestibule may be used to temporarily secure phones for a small fee.

Over the past year, the Alexandria sheriff’s deputies tasked with courthouse security have shown an amazing blend of professionalism and patience. Assigned to new roles, like mask enforcement or temperature-taking, they have dealt calmly with citizens who sometimes bristle at unfamiliar COVID-19 restrictions, while simultaneously ensuring the building’s physical security. The Sheriff’s Office should be commended for its hard work throughout an unprecedented year.

Certain aspects of our work have returned to something resembling normal operations. For most of the past 18 months, our regular grand jury has been meeting only every other month. The Code of Virginia requires any felony charge to be reviewed by a grand jury before it may proceed to trial, so these meetings are crucial to the forward progress of cases. However, jury service requires citizens to enter the courthouse, and a desire to limit the necessity for citizens to serve coupled with fewer cases sparked the decision to decrease the frequency of grand jury proceedings. Since case numbers have continued to rise, beginning in September we are returning to monthly grand jury meetings.

The court, however, has instituted a number of COVID-19 related measures to ensure the safety of citizens asked to serve as jurors. Instead of meeting in a small room, the grand jury utilizes an entire courtroom so that jurors may remain socially distant from each other. Masks, of course, are obligatory, and the number of administrative personnel in the courtroom is limited. The courtrooms have also been modified, with plexiglass installed to decrease the possibility of virus transmission.

These same precautions are utilized for jury trials, which continue to be heard. However, we continue to work our way through a significant COVID-19-induced backlog.

Schedule priority is given to cases in which the person charged is being held pre-trial. Persons who are released on bail after being charged constitute the vast majority of cases, and given these defendants are at liberty, their trials are being scheduled much farther out. The Circuit Court’s trial schedule is full through early 2022, an unusual state of affairs for our courts which, in non-COVID-19 times normally had a number of trial slots available at any given time.

My office is almost at full staffing as the city has recently eased a COVID-19-induced hiring freeze. Earlier this summer, we were able to hire a coordinator for the Alexandria Treatment Court after securing a federal grant to pay the employee’s salary and benefits. This is a significant development in that it has already allowed us to increase the number of citizens who are participating in the Treatment Court. Next month, we will welcome an experienced attorney who will fill a position that remained open for almost a year due to virus-related concerns.

A courthouse must remain open to do the people’s business, which entails far more than criminal trials. Our Circuit Court Clerk’s Office is responsible for important tasks like the recording of deeds and the issuance of marriage licenses. The Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court is integral to disputes over child custody, and the General District Court functions as Virginia’s version of small-claims court. The hard work of the employees comprising the myriad of agencies housed in the courthouse assures that Alexandria’s court systems continue to function in spite of the COVID-19 chaos.

The writer is Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney for Alexandria.