Changes to Douglas County District Court dockets aim to increase overall efficiency, chief judge says

photo by: Mackenzie Clark

The Douglas County Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, which houses Douglas County District Court and a number of other criminal justice services at 111 E. 11th St., is pictured April 8, 2020.

Some changes to procedures in Douglas County District Court are expected to increase efficiency for criminal defense attorneys and their clients, according to Chief Judge James McCabria.

The changes will also be positive for the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputies who handle security at the courthouse, the agency’s public information officer said.

It’s still not entirely clear when the courts will fully reopen, and, in a news release this week, the county said that any hearing that is open to the public can be viewed live on the court’s YouTube channel as entry to the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center, 111 E. 11th St., is still limited.

But when in-person hearings pick up speed again, changes to procedures aim to move everything through the process more quickly.

In pre-pandemic times, a courtroom and the hallway outside it would fill with attorneys, defendants and their supporters once a week, sometimes for hours as judges called dozens of cases, one by one.

Going forward, the dockets will only be for quick scheduling conferences. Any hearings more involved than that will be set for different dates. Also, inmates will be seen via video from the Douglas County Jail; they’ll only be brought over to the courthouse for more substantial hearings in their cases.

“We felt like being able to eliminate prisoner transports for just rescheduling was a huge benefit to us, to the sheriff’s department; to helping make that aspect of our dockets more efficient,” McCabria said.

The goal is to move through all the cases in one hour. And ideally, if an attorney has multiple cases on one docket, the court can knock out all three at once.

Skip Griffy, longtime president of the Douglas County Criminal Defense Bar, said he thought the change has been a long time coming, and there has been a lot of wasted court time. He said he thinks that if everyone is in agreement that a hearing will be of no real substance, the parties shouldn’t have to spend an hour and a half in court.

“It will be a big, big improvement,” he said. “… I’m looking forward to seeing how this works.”

Dockets shuffled

There’s another change-up in proceedings: effective as of May, the divisions have changed the way cases are assigned, also with the hope of improving efficiency.

Some of the longer-running court cases, including some familiar to Journal-World readers, will be staying with the judges previously assigned to them. Though McCabria is no longer taking new criminal cases, he is keeping the case of State v. Rontarus Washington Jr., for instance.

The majority of McCabria’s criminal cases have been split between Judges Amy Hanley and Stacey Donovan, however. With some exceptions, his division is now handling a range of civil cases as well as probate cases.

According to a chart McCabria provided to the Journal-World:

• Hanley’s division is now handling solely misdemeanor and felony criminal cases.

• Donovan’s division will handle misdemeanors, felonies, some child in need of care cases and limited action civil cases.

• Judge Kay Huff will handle felony criminal cases and some civil cases. She will also preside over drug court.

• Judge Sally Pokorny will handle felony criminal cases and domestic cases. She will also preside over behavioral health court and handle any associated care and treatment cases.

• Judge Mark Simpson will handle domestic cases, some civil cases and all remaining care and treatment cases.

Before, care and treatment cases were assigned to the duty judge, he said. McCabria said he believes it will be “tremendous” to have one judge handling all of these cases, determining whether to order an individual into involuntary commitment at a state hospital. If the person is committed, he or she can be released on an outpatient treatment order.

“There was no one judge who was invested in seeing how those cases got managed and having a way to interface with the various local mental health agencies that cross over into those cases,” McCabria said.

With this change, Simpson will oversee the follow-up in these cases, and McCabria said hopefully it will have a net benefit.

• Judge Pro Tem James George will hear misdemeanor, traffic and small claims cases and first appearances.

• Judge Pro Tem Paul Klepper will handle child in need of care, domestic, juvenile offender and some civil cases, as well as child support modifications.

More on courts and COVID-19

The Kansas Supreme Court continues to encourage that matters be heard through videoconferencing as much as possible, according to a recent news release from the Kansas Judicial Branch. However, courts are now allowed to conduct in-person hearings if appropriate social distancing requirements are met, the release states.

Jury trials still pose problems. Last month, the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court established the Ad Hoc Jury Task Force to develop best practices to safely conduct jury trials, according to another news release.

Hanley is chairing the task force, and Mary Kay Howe, a court reporter for Douglas County District Court, and Lawrence attorney Terrence Campbell are among its 16 members, according to the release.

The Kansas Supreme Court has also ordered district and appellate courts statewide to require masks in accordance with Gov. Laura Kelly’s mask mandate as numbers of coronavirus cases continue to rise, “even though the governor’s order exempts court proceedings,” a Thursday news release states.

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