Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Come Monday, prosecutors with the 2nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office plan to stop showing up to the majority of court hearings in person.
Instead, they hope to be able to conduct almost all proceedings via telephone or video conference.
It’s the latest development in a back-and-forth between lawyers and the state Supreme Court as the justice system wrangles with how to conduct court business while keeping people from catching and spreading the novel coronavirus.
Already in southern New Mexico, 5th Judicial District Attorney Dianna Luce, the president of the District Attorneys Association, is under quarantine after possibly coming into contact with the virus, said 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez.
In a letter written to the New Mexico Supreme Court on Thursday, Torrez called the justice system’s response to the public health emergency “slow and underwhelming.” He urged the justices to order that all hearings be conducted via video or telephone conference as long as it doesn’t interfere with a defendant’s constitutional right to confront all parties in person.
Torrez said he believes probation violation hearings, preliminary hearings, pre-trial detention hearings and proceedings about scheduling or specific motions can all be handled remotely. Over the past several days these proceedings have continued as normal, and the DA included photos of crowded courtrooms with his letter.
Torrez said his office successfully tested video conference technology with a judge and the public defender’s office and he has designated staff in his office to work with each courtroom to make the technological changes go more smoothly.
Sidney Hill, a spokesman for the 2nd Judicial District Court, said the court has participated in these efforts and is already trying to make it easier to conduct proceedings without all parties physically present. He said attorneys can request telephonic appearances at any time.
“Given these facts, it is quite frankly difficult to understand why the District Attorney felt the need to raise this issue with the Supreme Court,” Hill wrote in a statement.
The letter is the second Torrez has written this week asking the court to take decisive action to address COVID-19.
On Monday he asked the Supreme Court to postpone all hearings that are not constitutionally necessary, among other things.
The court responded to that request by issuing an order suspending most criminal jury trials through the end of April and encouraging judges to hold more hearings via phone and video conference.
Individual judges still have the discretion to determine when remote hearings are appropriate.
Torrez apparently felt that wasn’t strong enough.
“I will continue to work with local judges to implement technological solutions that will foster public health under the Court’s existing Order, but I urge you to adopt more sweeping policies that will slow the spread of disease by limiting the number of people in New Mexico courthouses,” Torrez wrote. “At a minimum, the Court should take decisive action by either vacating all non-critical hearings in trial courts at every level or mandating remote appearance by all participants in such hearings.”
Bennett Baur, the chief public defender, agreed that drastic measures are necessary.
“A very limited number of things may have to take place while we’re in this emergency,” he said. “We’re all struggling and trying to work together to figure out how to best do that.”
Torrez said he never imagined the courts would be in this situation, but delays or inaction could end up hurting more people down the line, including court staff, attorneys and the families, defendants and more.
“Frankly, I think the court is doing its best to address this situation but my view is we have to err on the side of being overly cautious right now,” Torrez said. “Because the risks of not taking dramatic enough steps are simply too great.”