October 17, 2021

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California chief justice says courts can hold video hearings amid coronavirus shutdown

California’s chief justice, at an emergency meeting of state judicial leaders Saturday, directed judges to dramatically expand technology to remotely conduct court proceedings and extend the time for arraignments and trials to be heard, saying she can’t be assured that the state’s jails are doing enough to curb the spread of coronavirus.

“I’ve received no assurances that jails in California are practicing social distancing” either when inmates are in custody or when being transported to courthouses and courtrooms themselves ill-equipped to practice physical distancing, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said.

“This is an avenue to protect the public and to protect inmates as well. We’re making sure the courts aren’t vectors,” Cantil-Sakauye said, for spreading the virus.

State judicial leaders meeting by call-in Saturday unanimously backed the temporary directives as California’s courts try to strike a balance between due process and public health during a global pandemic. The orders extend the time required for a charged criminal defendant to face a judge from the standard 48 hours to up to one week; and they allow criminal and civil courts to extend by more than a month the time required to bring trials to a judge.

The technology directives are sweeping: Superior courts can use available video, audio and telephone for remote appearances, court reporting and interpreting in proceedings. The order also makes its use a priority for criminal and juvenile matters including arraignments and preliminary hearings to ensure defendants aren’t held in custody or removed from their parents or guardians in violation of their rights.

All jury trials in the state have been suspended until May and courts in Sacramento are among those currently closed, except for certain emergency or time-sensitive hearings. Other superior courts across the state had closed their doors outright even before Gov. Gavin Newsom enacted a first-in-the-nation statewide shutdown.

“This provides a much-needed lifeline to courts across the state,” Justice Brad R. Hill said of remote proceedings. “These are extraordinary measures, but they are not a replacement.”

“The intended goal of the actions is clear: Trial courts are to function, not as shuttered business offices, but as beacons of justice during this crisis,” said Justice Marsha G. Slough. The measures, Slough said, “are not used to delay justice. They are intended as relief.”

Cantil-Sakauye later promised that unlawful detainers and foreclosures will be at the forefront of future action to ensure, she said, that “no needs or rights are overlooked.”

An executive order Newsom signed late Friday mirrored the orders approved Saturday, allowing the chief justice to issue emergency orders to superior courts without having to be first asked by local courts to enact their requests; and suspending rules that block courts from using technology to remotely hold proceedings.

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County Public Defender Steven Garrett and federal public defenders this week pressed Sacramento Superior Court Presiding Judge Russell Hom to allow prosecutors to appear by video for arraignments and other hearings; and defense counsel to talk with their clients by video or telephone instead of visiting the county’s jails, citing the urgent health risks.

In the defenders’ letter Thursday, they said the pandemic has effectively ended daily attorney-client jail visits.

“There is no safe method of protecting any visitor from introducing the virus or from acquiring it while at the jail,” their letter to Hom read.

Schubert has directed her staff not to appear in court, writing that she was “gravely concerned about the health and safety of my staff, all others entering the courthouse and the community at large. We must push all justice partners to utilize technology to conduct as many hearings (as) possible under the law.”

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