The District of Columbia Court of Appeals (“Court of Appeals” or “Court”) is making significant operational changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as reflected in the March 23, 2020, Order entered by Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby. The change to Court procedures follows suit with many appellate courts throughout the country. Last week, the United States Supreme Court announced it would postpone oral arguments through its session ending on April 1, 2020. The nation’s highest court has not postponed oral arguments in over 100 years – since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.
The Court of Appeals will close the Historic Courthouse Building and cancel all oral arguments scheduled through May 31, 2020. Cancelled cases will be decided without oral argument unless the Court determines that oral argument is otherwise necessary. Parties are permitted to file a motion requesting oral argument. The Court’s Order also expressly encourages the filing of motions for summary affirmance for parties seeking a decision prior to briefing or oral argument. By instituting and encouraging these policies, it appears the Court is attempting to avoid further delay by allowing judges greater latitude to decide cases without briefing or oral argument. We may see a departure from the Court’s existing procedure where many cases are argued prior to the Court’s decision.
Another significant change under the Order is the suspension and tolling of all filing deadlines until May 31, 2020, including the statutory timeframe to file an appeal as well as deadlines for briefing and motions in pending appeals. For example, if an appellant was statutorily required to file an appeal on or before March 24, 2020, the appellant now has until May 31, 2020, to file the appeal. Similarly, a briefing deadline that falls between March 23, 2020, and May 30, 2020, is automatically extended to May 31, 2020. The Court will continue to accept new filings notwithstanding the tolling of deadlines.
With regard to pending appeals where briefing is completed, the Court of Appeals has not issued any major changes to operations. It will continue to issue decisions on pending cases that have already been argued or do not require oral argument.
We are cautiously optimistic this policy will help break the logjam of pending zoning appeals. Currently, there are 15 cases before the Court of Appeals that concern an appeal of either the District of Columbia Zoning Commission or the District of Columbia Board of Zoning Adjustment. Of those 15 cases, eight appeals are “under advisement,” meaning the case has been briefed, argued, and is awaiting a written decision from the Court. Another three cases have finished briefing but are awaiting calendaring for oral argument. The pending zoning appeals include Zoning Commission approvals of an 80 townhome development in the Michigan Park neighborhood and a 20-acre redevelopment in the Brookland neighborhood that will feature over 1,700 residential units and retail space; unfortunately, further delaying much needed housing stock in the District Of Columbia.
By limiting the number of cases being argued and encouraging summary affirmance, judges can dedicate more time to writing and issuing written decisions. For frame of reference, a review of recent zoning appeals shows the Court is scheduling oral argument, an average of five to six months after briefing is completed. Written decisions are generally issued an additional six to seven months after oral argument. Although cases may be different depending on complexity, the process from briefing to decision often takes a year or more. As a result of these emergency polices, the Court of Appeals may be able to issue decisions in a more expedited fashion in the coming months.