Douglas County DA expresses concern about continuing in-person court hearings amid COVID-19 surge

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.

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez has expressed concern about continuing in-person court hearings as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.

While the DA’s office does not have the authority to suspend in-person hearings, Valdez said in a news release this week that she was working to gather input from the public on whether they felt comfortable participating in in-person hearings amid the current surge of cases.

She also said, as an elected official, that she felt a duty to listen to the community’s concerns and had an obligation to workers in her office to ensure their safety amid the public health crisis.

While in-person hearings require defendants accused of crimes to appear in court, they also often require alleged victims to testify and members of the public to serve on juries.

“This office exists to ensure the safety of our community,” Valdez said. “Part of that has to include consideration of whether it is safe to require members of the public to appear in person as part of the criminal justice system. After all, people who have been summoned do not have an option of whether or not to appear.”

Valdez asked Douglas County residents to respond to an online survey about their comfort level regarding in-person hearings. Those interested in participating in the survey may do so at

Meanwhile, Chief Judge James McCabria told the Journal-World on Friday that the court continued to analyze the local COVID-19 situation with guidance from local health officials, who have “consistently approved” of the court’s mitigation measures. He said that the court continued to discuss the issue with the DA’s office and appreciated Valdez’s input.

So far the court has not received any requests to delay a trial because of COVID-19 concerns since trials resumed last year, but the court will allow for that to happen if necessary, he said.

“The court will continue to review and consider additional mitigation measures, including leaving open the possibility of suspending trials or holding proceedings at other venues,” McCabria said. “The rights of persons in jail awaiting trial, the magnitude of impact in any given case and health and safety of the community remain paramount in those decisions.”

As the Journal-World has reported, Douglas County recently reinstated a mask mandate for people 2 years old and older while in indoor spaces. The mandate is meant to help protect the community as COVID-19 cases have rapidly increased during the past week.

As of Friday, there were 2,956 active cases reported in Douglas County, according to Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health. The 14-day moving average for new cases is at 142.14 cases per day, a record high for the county. Just since Wednesday, 804 new cases have been reported.

The court has been holding in-person hearings regularly since April 2021, when it resumed trials that were delayed since the pandemic emerged about a year prior. However, the court has also continued to hold some hearings over online video conferencing.

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