Photo of the inside of a domestic violence shelter.
Photo of the inside of a domestic violence shelter. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

To limit face-to-face interactions in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, D.C. Superior Court modified some of its regular operating procedures, measures that include extending stay away and protection orders in domestic violence cases through May 1, according to a summary of the changes provided to City Paper. That means parties do not need to show up to court in person to petition to extend their restraining orders, which will temporarily remain in effect under the public health emergency.

The court, which handles the city’s civil and criminal cases, has also suspended a number of non-emergency hearings to limit crowds. On Sunday, DC Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morincontinued all hearings in the civil division that are scheduled on or before May 1. This includes cases with the Landlord and Tenant Court, a courtroom that is packed every weekday with residents fighting to keep their homes, and the Small Claims Court, a courtroom where residents show up en masse on Wednesdays and Thursdays so a judge doesn’t automatically enter a default judgement. 

The court is not closing and is open to new electronic filings. It’s also updating its website almost daily with new information about how different divisions within the court are addressing concerns over the novel virus. On Monday, the chief judge issued an emergency order that gave police and prosecutors the ability to issue a citation when someone is accused of a minor crime instead of having them detained until their first court appearance. Defense lawyers expressed concern last week that the city’s jail was a hotbed for a virus outbreak given that hundreds of people—many of whom are considered high-risk patients—are in close confinement to one another and there’s lots of churn with intakes and discharges. 

Some divisions that have changed: 

  • The Marriage Bureau will issue marriage licenses, but no new weddings can be scheduled 

  • New jury trials in criminal cases are deferred until at least March 30 

Some criminal cases that haven’t changed: 

  • Drug Court and Mental Health Community Court

  • Presentment of indictments and other grand jury matters 

  • Presentments, arraignments, preliminary hearings and status hearings for detained defendants

Advocates that work with survivors were especially concerned about how the court and other government agencies would operate under the public health emergency. They are worried about those who are quarantining in a home they don’t feel safe in. Already, there are police reports elsewhere about domestic disputes that have started over COVID-19 panic. Domestic violence groups have been preparing for the worst case scenario, for crowded shelters and more. 

“The planning with the city started when the mayor declared the state of emergency—that’s when we started reaching out and trying to coordinate with biggest city partners to figure out what their response is going to be,” says Natalia Otero, Executive Director of DC SAFE, a 24/7 crisis intervention organization for survivors of domestic violence. “We have not shut down the [crisis] response line since we started it in 2009, and we have no intention of doing that now.”

The Court is still open for emergency matters. Anyone looking to get a protection order can still do so. The Domestic Violence Division Clerk’s Office will be available remotely for questions; call (202) 879‐0157 or send an email to reach the office.  

Morgan Baskin contributed reporting.