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D.C. Council and Federal Court Access Update

Fritz Mulhauser | April 6, 2020 | Last modified: April 8, 2020

Public access uncertain as federal court hears D.C. prisoners’ concerns

UPDATE 4/8/20 . — There were no public dial-in numbers but the court allowed press to listen to two electronic hearings Tuesday (7). The Post’s Spencer Hsu filed 1200 words that evening that gave a good rundown on the two-hour discussion in the jail case and related statistics. The court struggled since risks appear urgent but facts were in dramatic conflict, so necessary decisions lack clear foundation. The parties dispute whether basic health safety policies are being followed and the residents’ attorney did not give the court a population target for slimming down the jail population. The court asked the parties to confer and come back with plans for an independent inspection. A 4:00 p.m. session was apparently inconclusive and another was set for 11:00 today (8). And Tom Jackman wrote in the Post about the hearing held Tuesday (7) in the Hope Village halfway house case. The attorney for the federal Bureau of Prisons told the court 30-40 of 126 eligible residents are being evaluated this week for release. The judge declined to issue any orders and asked the parties to provide further details before a hearing April 14.

Two cases about safeguarding health of those detained in the D.C. jail and a halfway house are going ahead in a largely shuttered federal court here. The cases’ complaints, on behalf of over 1,600 in the jail and 300 at Hope Village halfway house, say severe overcrowding continues and key health protections are missing.

The Post‘s Moriah Balingit and Spencer Hsu late Sunday reported that 18 residents in the D.C. Jail have tested positive for the virus, 126 residents are in quarantine (the 18 plus recent arrivals and others who were exposed to those with positive tests) and seven correctional officers tested positive. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton wrote the federal Bureau of Prisons Sunday inquiring about the deaths of two Hope Village residents over the weekend.

The court cases are not formally closed, just inaccessible. That is, no plans seem to be in place yet for electronic connections so that family, friends, press and the public may follow the telephone and video sessions. Inquiries by the Coalition to counsel and the courthouse produced no call-in numbers or other access details. 

Tuesday (7) at 10:00, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly will hold a key video hearing where detainees will press for an urgent and sweeping court order. The detainees ask the court to appoint an outside expert to manage rapid downsizing of the jail population. This is the only way, they say, to assure the distancing essential to stop the virus’ spread. A case-by-case process is under way in Superior Court, but the lawsuit says it’s going too slowly. District officials are expected to say (as they have in court papers filed so far) that they are doing all that’s necessary to keep ail detainees safe and healthy and the requested order would massively intrude into government management. The case is Banks v. Booth, No. 20-cv-849, filed by the Public Defender Service and the ACLU of DC.

The court last week denied a press request to attend the initial hearing because of short notice. But Judge Kollar-Kotelly said, according to the transcript, “That doesn’t mean they won’t be on in future.” So far, there are no clear plans to allow that.

Guidance required by a provision of the federal emergency law, the CARES Act, has gone out nationwide telling federal courts to allow public access to electronic criminal proceedings. The statutory provision and the guidance don’t mention access to civil cases. The most recent update from the D.C. federal courthouse is also silent on access to the few civil matters not postponed.

The halfway house case is Williams v. BOP, No. 20-cv-890, addressing conditions at Hope Village, a private contract facility in Southeast Washington housing men returning from federal prisons where D.C. residents serve longer sentences. That case will get started in an initial telephone hearing at noon Tuesday (7) before Judge Rudolph Contreras. Hope Village residents are in the final weeks of their sentences and have been, until the virus, allowed to leave during the day for work and other tasks. All are now locked into close quarters around the clock including cramped bedrooms and group meals. Their lawsuit also requests downsizing. The Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the ACLU of DC and the firm of Latham & Watkins represent the halfway house residents.

D.C. Council meets again Tuesday with call-in plans in place

UPDATE 4/8/20: The bill as passed is B23-0733. Text is here. Video of the Council meeting is here. Washington Post coverage is here and Washington City Paper rundown is here.

If you wondered how a remote legislative session will work, the logistics of the first-ever call-in session this coming Tuesday (7) at 10:00 are spelled out in this memo from the secretary on being recognized to speak, voting, etc.  And the public can observe online — with required registration here (“for Internet security”). We tried signing up and it seemed easy, and even got a nice (automated) welcoming note back from the Council. Public posting of sign-up info is on the Council site here.

The main business is a second hefty bill with more adjustments for many special situations arising during the pandemic. An earlier bill passed March 17 with the first set of adjustments.

Chairman Mendelson Tweeted a 75-page draft bill Thursday (2) and also posted it on his own website with a memo asking it be introduced. His memo explained that the bill adds resources for unemployment payments, strengthens housing protections, adds “administrative fixes to allow the District to carry out its June primary and special election with less in-person voting,” allows urgent borrowing by the CFO in the rest of this fiscal year, and more.

He underlined that it is made up of items the mayor and Council asked for, but readers should expect it to be refined leading up to Tuesday’s vote. He intends the final bill to pass without any fuss—writing in italics,“This will be a consensus bill.”

The successive drafts do not go into the Council database of bills and according to the Council information officer likely won’t be there until the bill is in final form Monday night. The Council schedule also shows the chairman and the mayor will hold a press session Monday at 10:00. 

A revised version with a staff cover memo circulated Sunday (5) afternoon. The latest revision, the memo says, removes some items with fiscal impacts that require appropriations. A further revised bill, now 175 pages, came later Sunday, with a note that “we will not be able to vet any other matters.” Washington City Paper reported advocates’ disappointment that a new plan for cash assistance to those who cannot apply for unemployment benefits or are excluded from the federal relief package was cut in the revised version of the bill.