The sharp rise in coronavirus cases is once again defying California courts, with judges releasing plans this week to curtail some court proceedings as the state experiences the strongest peak in COVID-19 since January 2021.
In a moment of deja vu who led to a backlog of cases last year, some courtrooms are stopping jury trials, moving some court proceedings online and pushing back their schedules. Even so, some small counties experiencing the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak
are doubling down on masks but are not ready to make drastic changes or temporarily send jurors home.
“The decision here is between access to justice and public safety,” said David A. Carrillo, executive director of the California Constitution Center.
Los Angeles County, the largest in the state, suspended at least one trial and postponed by two weeks a deadline to begin criminal jury trials. Sacramento County has limited the number of assigned jury trials, streamlined schedules and increased distancing requirements.
John M. Monterosso, president of the Riverside County Superior Court, told CalMatters it became impossible to continue jury trials as COVID-19 cases erupted among magistrates, court staff, lawyers, litigants and jurors.
“We are not dispensing process, we are not dispensing justice,” he said. “It can just be slowed down a bit.
“Having to stop last year around the same time that last year’s winter surge happened was really disheartening, and it’s just as disheartening… all the more so now because we thought we were. out of this case, ”said Monterosso.
Yet some courtrooms are reluctant to suspend jury trials, even in places with high hospitalization rates.
Imperial County has the state’s highest rate of hospitalized patients with COVID-19, says data analysis by CalMatters. The county of nearly 180,000 has so far not changed its hearing procedures beyond requiring everyone to wear a mask.
In an email response, the county court director general said they are complying with public health mandates and guidelines. “Ensuring equal access to justice for all members of the community is at the forefront of the court’s mission,” said Executive Director Maria Rhinehart. “We are actively engaged in internal discussions. “
California courts have suspended jury trials and extended deadlines at the start of the pandemic in 2020. Many did so again in the winter of 2020 and 2021, during this outbreak. The changes have delayed many face-to-face procedures, delayed systems and left many Californians waiting for their day in court.
Governor Gavin Newsom gave trial courts approximately $ 60 million in this year’s budget to help courtrooms reduce congestion.
Since California no longer has an emergency order in place that required the courts to take certain actions, the presiding justices in each county are creating their own rules on how to balance justice and public health.
“You are presented with three bad choices, either don’t do them (jury trial), or do them remotely, or roll the dice and have jury trials in person,” Carrillo said.
The contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus has quickly spread throughout California, causing more than 140,000 new cases of COVID – the highest number since the start of the pandemic. The variant presented a challenge for courtrooms as more people test positive, which several courts cited when announcing changes to their policies this week.
“We have seen a similar increase in positive cases in Sacramento County, and here in our own court, with cases that have quadrupled,” Presiding Judge Michael G. Bowman said in a press release from Tuesday.
California courtrooms are not alone in taking disparate approaches to the conduct of court cases. Federal courtrooms in California are also making various changes in the mid-point.
Copyright 2022, CalMatters.