HHS operations center The primary emergency operations center for HHS. Photo: White House

California’s state courts remained open and operating near normally Friday as judges and court executives grappled with how to respond to the outbreak of the respiratory illness COVID-19.

Judge Joyce Hinrichs of Humboldt County Superior Court, chair of a Judicial Council committee of presiding judges, said the coronavirus is a major topic of discussion among her colleagues, who are trying to balance safety concerns for the public and court employees with the need to maintain judicial operations.

“We’re being vigilant,” Hinrichs said while attending a previously scheduled conference of presiding judges and court executives, but “we don’t want to be part of any hysteria.”

More than a dozen deaths in the U.S., the bulk of them in Washington state, have been attributed to the coronavirus outbreak, as the number of infected patients globally soared past 100,000 Friday.

Federal courts in western Washington state on Friday said they were suspending all civil and criminal matters requiring an in-court appearance. The order, in effect at least until March 31, does not impact judges’ considerations of civil or criminal matters that can be resolved on court filings without oral argument. The courthouses in Seattle and Tacoma remain open. Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on Friday said it was cancelling en banc hearings for the week of March 9.

“In light of the concerns about community spread of the COVID-19 virus throughout the Circuit, the Court has cancelled its  en banc hearings and all non-case related meetings scheduled for the week of March 9th,” the court said. “At the discretion of the three-judge panels, there may be additional cancellations for next week as well.”

The California Department of Public Health reported 60 positive cases of COVID-19 and one related death as of Thursday at 10 a.m., the most recent time the state made figures available. Some schools have closed and in Santa Clara County, home to 20 reported cases, public health officials have recommended canceling large public gatherings and keeping employees at “an arm’s-length” distance in the workplace.

California courts have a blueprint available for responding to a disease outbreak. In 2006, the agency known then as the Administrative Office of the Courts released “Epidemics and the California Courts” after a public scare over the so-called bird flu. The 39 pages of guidance recommends that judges stay “ aware of the authority of health officials, as well as of constitutional implications of quarantine, isolation, and court closure.”

“Each of us plays a vital role in controlling, containing, and mitigating the effects of an outbreak. California courts now have an opportunity to prepare to fight this potentially devastating disaster,” the report stated.

Gov. Gavin Newsom this week declared a state of emergency in California, but it does not mandate any quarantines or court closures.

Court executives should make “court personnel aware of the procedure for requesting Judicial Emergency Orders,” the guidance says, while “considering implementing protocols that address how persons who are subject to quarantine or isolation may continue to access court resources or legal counsel.”

California law, updated in 2018, gives the chief justice broad powers to act in an epidemic or “public calamity.” She can authorize courts to hold sessions anywhere in their home county, to transfer civil cases to another location within 100 miles of the county, to declare a “holiday” for the purpose of calculating certain filing deadlines and to extend the time in which a criminal trial must be held.

The outbreak has highlighted the decentralized relationship between California’s trial courts and the central judicial administration. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has not issued any orders related to the coronavirus, nor has she released any public statements.

The Judicial Council recently sent a memo to courts saying leaders are monitoring the situation and urging judges to monitor public health reports for information. Administrative Director Martin Hoshino was expected to send another message to courts Friday.

The administrative unit that produced the 2006 “epidemic” guidebook is still in existence and “responding to questions and sending out information” to courts, a Judicial Council spokesman said.

Representatives of courts in counties where COVID-19 has been reported said they had ordered extra cleanings of public rooms and urged employees and potential jurors to stay home if they showed any symptoms of illness. Nearly nine million Californians are summoned for jury service every year.

“There is no indication that fewer jurors or attorneys are showing up for court,” said Mary Hearn, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Superior Court, the largest state court system in the nation. “However, the Court is taking steps to plan for potential disruptions and is actively receiving important timely updates from the Los Angeles Department of Public Health and the Judicial Council.”

Jake Chatters, executive officer of the Placer County Superior Court, said court leaders are evaluating options to typical court appearances, including increasing telephone conferences. The only known COVID-19 death was reported in Placer County.

 

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