Va.’s top judge wants to end long waits for justice over holiday weekends

A police officer walks into the John Marshall Courthouse in downtown Richmond. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Someone arrested the day before Thanksgiving could be looking at a five-night stay in jail before getting a chance to go before a local judge for a bail hearing, and Supreme Court of Virginia Chief Justice Donald Lemons says that delay has never felt right to him.

“It seems to me that it’s not proper for the courthouse doors to be effectively closed,” he said, pledging to convene a task force to address the logistical challenges of implementing an on-call system for key court personnel so that hearings could still be held on holidays.

Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, raised the issue during a meeting Tuesday of the committee that oversees the administration of district courts, noting that between the July 4 holiday and the Thanksgiving holiday, there will be two periods during 2019 where courthouses across the state would be closed for four consecutive days.

In addition to bond hearings, he said he worried about delays that face people seeking emergency restraining orders.

“We’ve figured it out in the private sector,” McDougle, a lawyer and chair of the Senate Republican Caucus, said. “You’re required to have access to your bank every 48 hours — they can’t close for three consecutive days.

“Liberty should be more important than that.”

Lemons said the issue had been on his mind, too, and judges in attendance were receptive, noting that they are often already on-call during off hours.

The only hurdles they envisioned were getting local prosecutors on board and figuring out how to handle support staff that might be necessary to hold an impromptu hearing, namely clerks and security.