The Kansas Supreme Court has renewed Chief Judge James McCabria’s appointment to lead Kansas’ Seventh Judicial District, which is composed of Douglas County.
McCabria was first sworn in as a judge in December 2014. He was appointed to the role of chief judge in late 2019, to take over after then-Chief Judge Peggy Carr Kittel retired at the end of 2019. His term began just before COVID-19 reached Kansas in early 2020.
The chief judge, according to the Kansas Judicial Branch, “has general control over case assignments within the district, as well as general supervisory authority over the administrative and clerical functions of the court.” But the COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for courts everywhere.
“Douglas County is very fortunate to have thoughtful, intelligent and caring judges on the bench. Without such colleagues, I have no idea how I would have managed,” McCabria said via email Tuesday. “I could not mean that more sincerely.”
Beyond the health risks and mitigation measures that have touched every aspect of our lives, the courts have had to grapple with upholding Constitutional and statutory rights and responsibilities.
For instance, one issue that has come up is a defendant’s right to a “speedy and public trial” — and although the Kansas Supreme Court suspended many statutory time limits, some attorneys have challenged whether a hearing with limited in-person attendance is truly a “public” hearing. Defendants also have a right to “confront” witnesses, which has meant that people testifying have needed to remove their masks. In addition, some judges have asked everyone in the courtroom to remove their masks momentarily so that witnesses can see all faces to identify the defendant.
During McCabria’s first term, a couple of unexpected duties included working with public health officials to make courtrooms COVID-19 safe and establishing a plan to hold jury trials at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where there is enough space for safe social distancing. The court has also streamed hearings via YouTube to ensure public access as court attendance was limited, and it continues to use Zoom regularly.
As for the future? “Chief Judge sounds much more grandiose than it really should,” McCabria said. “It used to be called the Administrative Judge position, so I am reluctant to suggest that I am in a position to have a vision to implement.
“That said, I know that all of the judges have appreciated the input and opportunity that CJCC (Criminal Justice Coordinating Council) offers us as perspective on our role in the community.”
McCabria’s second term will be from 2022-2024.