All Los Angeles County court proceedings will be suspended for several days as concerns about the spread of the coronavirus continue to mount, court officials announced Monday.
The nation’s largest court system will go dark from March 17 to 19, according to a statement issued by Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile. Court will reopen Friday for “the limited purpose of hearing or handling essential or emergency matters.”
“The Superior Court of Los Angeles County is committed to providing equal access to justice through the fair, timely and efficient resolution of all cases. However, it is imperative that we continue aligning our Court with the most recent directives and guidelines issued by our national, state and local public health officials,” the statement read. “Let me be clear: we will continue to serve the needs of the most vulnerable people in Los Angeles County—our children, the elderly, domestic violence victims, people whose life and liberty interests are at stake, and in many other emergent cases as is possible and safe.”
Brazile had previously asked that new criminal and civil trials be put on hold for at least 30 days. The three-day suspension is being carried out with the approval of California’s chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
Courts in Orange County also announced late Monday that they were suspending all proceedings until March 27 due to the public health crisis.
Los Angeles County courts are expected to re-open Friday, but a lengthier stalling of judicial proceedings is possible.
Three law enforcement officials told The Times that Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey sent a message to prosecutors over the weekend telling them that a 30-day delay of all active jury trials was likely to be implemented. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the matter candidly.
The district attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
In his statement Monday, Brazile said he would release additional information in the coming days about further reductions in judicial and court services.
The announcement comes as criminal justice officials in California continue to struggle with how spread of the virus will impact courthouses and jails.
Over the weekend, Los Angeles County court officials announced the suspension of the high-profile murder trial of New York real estate scion Robert Durst.
Judges were also encouraged to shift toward telephonic proceedings to lower traffic in the region’s courthouses.
Statewide, courthouses have taken a patchwork of measures to deal with the threat the virus poses to jurors and staff, ranging from trial delays to temporary building closures to excusing older jurors.
Lou Shapiro, a criminal defense attorney in Century City, applauded Brazile’s decision and said it was a relief for the attorneys and court staff that he knew.
“Many attorneys are really scared to go to work right now. You don’t have effective advocates if they are always living in fear,” Shapiro said.
He said that in the long term, the benefits of temporary closure would be more apparent.
“Because this disease is so contagious, if it does go around the court staff and lawyers, what justice will be served? What kind of advocates can public defenders and criminal defense attorneys be if they are quarantined?” Shapiro asked. “It’s better to sit out a few days or weeks. At the end of it, the defendants’ rights will be better served by taking this short-term break, rather than letting it ride and seeing how it goes.”
Michele Hanisee, president of the union representing deputy district attorneys, said the interruptions could prove significant for active trials, and suggested judges may allow for a review of prior testimony to allow jurors to re-acclimate themselves with evidence in case of prolonged delays.
“This is new, uncharted territory for everyone presently alive. It’s hard to know what’s too little and what’s too much. Everyone is proceeding with caution,” she said.
Nikhil Ramnaney, president of the union representing Los Angeles County public defenders, said he believed the court should have taken action sooner given the ease with which the virus could spread in a courthouse.
“I think now they’re finally taking this seriously ... in terms of my membership, in the last 72 hours it’s been insane how many people are very, very scared,” he said. “It’s impossible given the facilities to engage in social distancing.”
Ramnaney also noted that while the shutdown is necessary to prevent spread among lawyers, law enforcement officers and others who move in and out of the county’s sprawling court system, it could also worsen problems for at-risk individuals who are incarcerated.
“During the next three days, what venue do we have to petition for the release of very vulnerable people?” he asked. “That to me is the really difficult one … how do we strike a balance between our own personal safety, and the safety of our families, and the safety of incarcerated people?”
Before the announcement was made, the county’s top public defender, Ricardo Garcia, told The Times in an interview that any adjustments the court makes must stand up to constitutional muster.
“If there’s any situation where client rights are infringed on, we will object,” Garcia said, noting that keeping defendants out of custody was among his top priorities.
Garcia said that public defenders were confronting difficult dilemmas amid the closures of courthouses, trial delays and a widening public health crisis.
“Right now people are torn: They have two competing interests as attorneys. The first being the desire to protect themselves and their family, the people they love,” Garcia said, “and the second is the people they’ve dedicated their careers to protect: their clients.”