A Hennepin County judge drew criticism this week when she phoned in from home while a jail inmate appeared in her courtroom.
Hennepin County District Judge Martha Holton Dimick appeared for hearings Monday via telephone, bucking mandates issued by the county’s chief judge and state Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea.
“By them not showing up, it kind of makes our client seem like they’re less important,” said assistant Hennepin County public defender Erin Carey, who appeared before Holton Dimick on Monday.
Holton Dimick did not return a message Friday seeking comment.
Hennepin County Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson and the State Court Administrator’s Office declined to address or confirm the incident.
State courts have scaled back and implemented new practices in the face of COVID-19, but judges are expected to appear in court in most instances.
The state office confirmed that Bernhardson issued an e-mail Tuesday to the county’s judges after “an incident” and in an effort to address “confusion.”
“This is an important reminder of our obligation to be on the bench — not appear remotely — when you have an in-custody defendant and/or counsel present in the courtroom,” Bernhardson wrote. “That is our commitment to our mission — access to justice.”
State authorities declined to say whether other judges in the county or state have refused to appear in person when required. Judges are allowed to work from home in some circumstances.
Hennepin County Chief Public Defender Mary Moriarty said she is not aware of other incidents in the county. Moriarty said she is sympathetic to health concerns.
“This pandemic is scary for everyone,” Moriarty said, “but I think if there’s an in-custody appearance, you need to be there or you need to ask another judge to be there.”
Carey had two felony cases before Holton Dimick on Monday and said she was given no notice that the judge would appear via telephone.
Carey, her client, sheriff’s deputies and the judge’s law clerk were in the courtroom when Holton Dimick’s voice boomed in from speakers.
The prosecutor also appeared via telephone, which is permitted.
“I was frustrated,” Carey said of her reaction.
Carey argued for her client’s release to electronic home monitoring. Public defenders have sought the release of inmates to stop the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.
The prosecutor pushed back, and Holton Dimick denied the release, Carey said.
“The importance of having [clients] in a courtroom is you’re face to face with the judge, so the client can see the judge, the judge can see my client to see how he’s thinking, how he’s behaving …,” Carey said. “She should have to look him in the eye when she tells him she’s not releasing him.”
Carey’s second client appeared for sentencing via a prearranged telephone call. He was not in jail.
Carey and Moriarty said they have not received an explanation from Holton Dimick or the court.
The judge defied orders issued by Gildea in March and April requiring judges to appear in person in many circumstances. She also ignored an April 6 e-mail Bernhardson sent all Hennepin judges.
“It is our plan to continue to have judges on the bench in all in-custody calendars where the in-custody defendant and their counsel are in the courtroom,” Bernhardson wrote.