Criminal and civil trials were discontinued in California for at least two months after a sweeping order was issued late Monday by the state’s chief justice that aims to sharply cut down public traffic in state courthouses during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said in her order that court facilities were “ill-equipped to effectively allow the social distancing and other public health requirements” that have been imposed across California to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Even if court facilities could allow for sufficient social distancing, the closure of schools means that many court employees, litigants, witnesses, and potential jurors cannot leave their homes to attend court proceedings because they must stay home to supervise their children,” Cantil-Sakauye said in the order.
The 60-day delay — which puts the courts in California’s 58 counties on a uniform trial delay schedule — came the same day that the presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court, Kevin C. Brazile, blocked public access to county courthouses except for attorneys, staff, defendants and “authorized persons,” a vague category that includes news reporters. The clerk’s office will still be available to accept filings and assist people by phone or electronically.
Brazile also indefinitely closed courthouses in Beverly Hills, Catalina Island, and the civil courthouse on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles.
And his order sought to sharply reduce the number of cases that require defendants and their attorneys to appear for incremental developments. All progress reports and status reports for pending criminal matters, for example, were pushed back an additional 90 days, and misdemeanor cases where a defendant is not in jail were also delayed 90 days. Brazile also said it was a priority for judges to hold bail hearings for those awaiting trial in county jail.
Brazile’s updated order was issued after unions representing a wide range of courthouse staff, including public defenders, deputy district attorneys and interpreters, pleaded with him to implement measures to reduce the spread of the virus in their workplace. The unions sent a scathing letter on March 19 that asked for people entering the county’s courthouses to be screened and those showing symptoms to be barred. The unions also asked for improved social distancing protocols and a reduction in the types of court proceedings allowed to take place during the pandemic.
When the courts reopened Friday after a three-day shutdown, many attorneys shared photos of long lines to enter the Metropolitan Courthouse, which handles a large swath of misdemeanor cases, and complained of cramped conditions and a lack of available hand sanitizer.
Michele Hanisee, the president of the union representing Los Angeles County deputy district attorneys, had said Friday that judicial officers were “placing dedicated city, county and state employees as well as the public at risk.”
In a reply sent earlier Monday, the court said it had conferred with the county Department of Public Health, which recommended against screening people entering the courts because “thermometers used to scan the public are not deemed reliable.”
The Sylmar Courthouse, which has two courtrooms that handle juvenile cases, was also closed Monday for three days after an attorney in the L.A. County public defender’s office tested positive last week for COVID-19. The lawyer was caring for a relative who also tested positive, according to a statement issued by Los Angeles Superior Court. The courthouse is expected to reopen Thursday.