Portman Presses DC Superior Court Judge Nominees on the Need to Address Rising Crime in Nation’s Capital

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, pressed Judges Sean Staples, Kenia Lopez, and Rupa Puttagunta, the nominees to be Associate Judges for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, on how they planned to address the rise in crime in DC should they be confirmed. Portman highlighted the increase in crime, not only in Washington, DC, but also across the entire country, and discussed the need for the DC court systems to address this growing problem. 

Excerpts from his questioning can be found below and a video can be found here.

Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And thanks to my friend, James Lankford, for his role today as the Ranking Member. There was a little discussion earlier about crime and there is a crime wave in DC, as you know, and it’s not only in DC, it’s happening around the country, particularly in some of our bigger urban centers. According to the crime statistics, assaults with dangerous weapons, homicides, and armed robberies are all on the rise. Armed robberies are actually up 22 percent from last year. So, 22 percent increase in armed robberies this year as compared to last year, and last year was a concerning year, as you know. The DC Chief of Police has recently criticized the DC court system for contributing to the rise in crime, accusing the court system of allowing criminals to roam free. And I can give you a citation to that, but that was his concern. To our DC Superior Court candidates here, our nominees, in particular, what can the court system do to address this crime wave and to avoid what the Chief of Police, at least, believes is part of the problem? And what other ways would you recommend that the court work better with the prosecutors and with law enforcement to reduce crime?” 

Judge Sean C. Staples, Nominee to be an Associate Judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia: “So, Senator, this is Sean Staples. I’m sorry, I don’t know what order we were supposed to go in.” 

Portman: “Excellent, I’ll let you go first since you started talking. That’s great, I’d love to hear from all three of you. Thank you.” 

Judge Staples: “I think the court and all of its partners in the criminal justice system are acutely concerned about the rise in violent crime. But I can tell you, as a sitting judge, we have to look at these cases very, very carefully and decide them as fairly and as impartially as we can. We have a criminal justice committee, the C-10 Committee, that meets twice a month that discusses the operations of the C-10 courtroom. That includes all of our partners from the US Attorneys Office, from the Attorney General’s Office, from the Pretrial Services Agency, from MPD, and from the Department of Corrections, and that discusses how that court functions appropriately. But the bottom line for me as a judicial officer is to look at these cases very carefully and decide them on a case-by-case basis as carefully as I can.” 

Portman: “Others? Ms. Lopez?” 

Judge Kenia Seoane Lopez, Nominee to be an Associate Judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia: “So I agree with Judge Staples. I believe the court does have a good track record of working with stakeholders, in every committee of the court, including those in the criminal division. And the way that we can address that issue is to again roll up our sleeves, get to work, rule on our cases, expeditiously in a fair and impartial manner, while actually working with our stakeholders to improve the administration of justice, which we aim to do on a regular basis. But I do agree that the court is actively working on that. I think COVID has provided us an opportunity to kind of do a wholesale approach of a review of all of our operations, and we have been doing that to kind of figure out what’s the best way to go forward in terms of using the technologies and those conversations are in play about how we can expeditiously deal with the cases that are before us. Unfortunately, the judge’s role is very limited in the cases that it sees. And so our work is just to make sure that those cases are heard quickly and expeditiously. And then we have certain trial dates, which we are working on and continue to work with our partners to make sure that we are doing the best we can within our confines to address the issues.” 

Portman: “Judge Puttagunta?” 

Judge Rupa R. Puttagunta, Nominee to be an Associate Judge for the Superior Court of the District of Columbia: “Thank you, Senator. I echo the sentiments of my fellow nominees. As a judge, I believe it is most important that we faithfully apply the law; the statutes created by the DC Council, the law created by the DC Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court, and do that as faithfully as we can to each set of facts that come before us and to ensure that it is fairly and impartially and consistently applied. And I also agree with my fellow nominee statements that keeping open lines of communication with stakeholders, MPD, the Defense Office, the Prosecutor’s Office, and evaluating operationally how the court is functioning and what we can do to help address this is also appropriate.” 

Portman: “Well, those answers are fine. I guess what I didn’t hear in any of the answers is that you have any new ideas to deal with the crime wave, except that you’ll apply the law fairly and expeditiously as possible. And by the way, the backlog, as we’ve talked about earlier, is a huge issue too. The Mayor has talked about that. She has criticized you guys because she cited it as a public safety concern in terms of the backlog. I say you guys, I mean, the DC court system. So let me just ask a more general question. Are you concerned about crime in DC? Is that something where as a judge, you feel like you have a role to think about sentencing and think about, you know, how to deal with it? There’s obviously been not just increased crime, but also increased drug use and drug overdoses, and drug overdose deaths. The issue of illegality is one that has grown, and I think the courts do have a role to play here, not just to apply the law fairly, but to look at this from a different perspective, perhaps. So let me just ask you that generally, are you concerned about the crime wave? And do you think the court has a role to play? Mr. Staples, we’ll start with you because you started before.” 

Judge Staples: “Thank you. I think, as I said, all of the agencies that work in this criminal justice sphere are concerned about crime, but in terms of, I think often as a judicial officer, to discuss these issues often weighs into policy concerns about what we do about them, what we do about issues regarding crime. And I do believe my role is really just to listen and to really focus, however, and listen to the cases that are before me with a heightened focus to be able to deal with these issues effectively.” 

Portman: “Okay, well, my time is about expired, but I would just refer you to the concerns of the DC Chief of Police and the Mayor of DC. The Mayor talking about public safety, given your backlog and the concern about getting the bad people off the streets, and then the Chief of Police talking about the court system too often letting criminals roam free. I hope that, should you all be successful in your confirmations, that you will consider those concerns and consider your responsibility in trying to address this. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”