California lawyers are pressing Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye for uniform operating standards as courts around the state take vastly different approaches to business in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, president of the California District Attorneys Association, sent a letter Saturday to judicial branch leaders, urging them to address “inequities in California’s courthouses.”
“Some courts have authority to close courtrooms, others do not. Some are closing all courtrooms; some are closing some but not all; some are opening courts for arraignments only and some are opening more courts to allow preliminary hearings, juvenile hearings and other ancillary matters,” O’Malley wrote.
“This lack of equity and continuity in the treatment of criminal defendants and those who dedicate their lives to the administration of criminal justice raises concerns regarding equal protection under the law and now, more urgently, violates every health professional’s warning about the spread of the virus,” O’Malley said.
Cantil-Sakauye on Sunday evening announced she is canceling Tuesday’s Judicial Council meeting so that members—which include judges, commissioners and executive officers—can focus on work in their courts. The chief justice also said she has asked a council committee for recommended changes that would allow the court system to “respond quickly and efficiently to ongoing needs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
O’Malley’s letter follows one sent March 13 by the president of the criminal defense bar, the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, calling on the chief justice to take “immediate action.”
“It is for you and you alone to communicate roles and responsibilities to all participants in the fair administration of justice and in the protection of public health,” Eric Schweitzer wrote. “Judges, attorneys, court staff, and security must have immediate guidance in what measures you will authorize to alleviate social contacts during the state of pandemic emergency.”
Through Friday, Cantil-Sakauye had issued emergency orders for 51 of 58 trial courts and four of six courts of appeal. Some of them, many pages long, authorize presiding judges to extend statutory deadlines and to declare court holidays. Others are just a few paragraphs and only address criminal matters.
In guidance issued Friday afternoon, Cantil-Sakauye urged presiding judges to reduce bail amounts, to allow the early release of inmates with little time left on their sentences and to prioritize proceedings for in-custody defendants. The recommendations are nonbinding.
“I, like many of you, am being contacted by justice system partners and advocates seeking immediate and direct action to address the particular needs of their constituencies,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “In responding to these requests, we have made clear what the limits of authority are for the Chief Justice and the Judicial Council, as well as the role of independent trial courts to manage their operations, while stressing our shared commitment to be responsive within the framework of respective constitutional and statutory responsibilities.”
On Sunday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile said the Sylmar courthouse will close for three days after the court learned that a deputy public defender tested positive for COVID-19 last week. The court’s statement said unidentified judges and court staff will self-quarantine for 14 days.
Los Angeles court leaders reopened 36 of 38 courthouses on Friday to handle urgent matters. Practices to reduce crowding and ensure distances between court visitors varied from building to building.
In a letter to Brazile on Saturday, the leaders of associations representing deputy public defenders and prosecutors called for “a temporary shut-down of the courts.”
“Continued operation of [the courts] without time to implement health and safety measures and implement social distancing protocols put everyone at serious risk,” Nikhil Ramnaney and Michele Hanisee wrote. “Furthermore, we are learning of plans to close more courtrooms and consolidate existing matters into fewer courtrooms. This is contrary to the recommendation by public health authorities to increase social distancing and limit the number of individuals in public gatherings.”