Thursday’s Twelve Minute Status Hearing
While changing gears from the criminal trial to a civil case, the contrasts are numerous and stark.
The fifth floor of the Moultrie Courthouse where Judge Brook Hedge’s courtroom is located, seems miles away from the more desperate hallways of the lower levels where Judge Lynn Leibovitz and the criminal set rule.
Downstairs, government attorneys ply their trade, MPD cops roam freely with sports jerseys covering their uniforms and the mothers of the District’s accused sit anxiously awaiting news, or verdicts.
Whereas the fifth floor is bathed in light by an expansive atrium, the third floor is always dark, dark in the daytime. Leibovitz’ 310 always seemed a little shabby, the carpets threadbare, walls scuffed and the flourescent lights gave everyone sitting under them a somewhat sickly glow. Hedge’s 517 seems larger, brighter and a little more cheerful. The courtroom matches the Judge’s demeanor.
Thursday’s status hearing began about ten minutes late, at 1:40pm. The courtroom felt even larger because the attendance was so sparse. In the first row sat the Post’s Keith Alexander, Legal Time’s Mike Scarcella and Emily Babay from the Examiner. WMRW readers Rich and Gloria joined two editors and another unidentified spectator grabbed a seat in the back row right behind Covington’s Anson Christian, a familiar face throughout the criminal proceedings, and his colleague, Brett Reynolds.
Running the show for the plaintiffs was Patrick Regan and Covington’s Stephen Roger. For the defendants, Robert Spagnoletti was there on behalf of Dylan Ward, Frank Daly and Sean Edwards for Victor Zaborsky, and Craig Roswell for Joseph Price.
By our count, eight media and case watchers were in the room, along with eight attorneys. A fair fight by anyone’s estimation.
Things got underway with the most important piece of business, setting (once again) the trial date. A couple weeks ago when September 12, 2011 was fixed, Pat Regan overlooked a trial on his schedule, a Maryland case regarding a 1998 matter. Yeah, 1998. That trial begins September 12 and should keep him occupied for three to four weeks.
Judge Hedge brought back the original June 2011 date but said because of a lengthy jury selection process (due to publicity) and summer vacations, it would be “suicide” to go back to that, “Not going to happen,” she said. Spagnoletti couldn’t say exactly how long the defense presentation would last but said, “…significantly longer than in the criminal case… two to three weeks longer.”
To the surprise of many, Regan said he expected the plaintiffs case in chief to run only six days. Judicial economy indeed.
We may be seeing less of Spagnoletti as the case moves forward. He announced that Ralph Spooner will be taking the lead from here on out. Spagnoletti said he would remain “in the background.” Those lower billing rates may come as a relief to those footing the bills; more cold comfort.
Saying it was “premature” to guess how long the trial would last, Hedge picked October 17 and said it could wrap by Thanksgiving. With a wry smile, she said she expected a lot of motions hearings. First and foremost may be rulings on 5th Amendment assertions by the defendants.
In the first set of responses to the interrogatories (to be posted next week), most if not all of them were non-answers based on 5th Amendment grounds against self incrimination. This will prove to be a particularly thorny issue moving forward. Deposition dates are penciled in for early October and it’s expected Price, Ward and Zaborsky will lean on the 5th in those as well and also at trial. Expect the plaintiffs to make a lot of noise over that collective silence.
Since the trial date was pushed back, Regan asked for the discovery deadline to be relaxed also. The defense wasn’t so keen on that but Hedge agreed with Regan, “This is a complex case and I see no problem extending discovery.” She set a June 2011 deadline as opposed to March, with motions hearings to follow. Also on the agenda is a September 7 pretrial hearing at 4:00pm. Mark you calendars.
Judge Hedge gaveled out at 1:52pm, bidding the attorneys adieu saying. “Always a pleasure.”
In the hallway outside 517, Pat Regan entertained a few questions from the media:
Q: Do you expect Judge Hedge to stay on the case in light of her pending retirement announcement?
A: “She may very well go to senior status. That’s the Chief Judge’s decision. We’ll know in the next 60 days. It will be announced in December and effective in January. (The calendar swap) applies to every judge… It sounds like she’s going to do (this case).”
Q: What’s the biggest difficulty in this case?
A “I’ll decline to answer that.” (Amid chuckles).
Q: What are the challenges?
A: “This case doesn’t have that many challenges. It’s pretty clear cut. Defendants don’t assert their fifth amendment rights if they are not guilty of something.”
Q: Do you expect to see new information surface in this case?
A: “Good question. Probably. Probably. But I can’t get into that. Every lawyer has to have a few surprises.”