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Benefits, disparities of keeping remote court hearings weighed in California Senate

Going remote offers benefits for Californians in court, but also poses a great challenge in a state facing major technology and internet disparities.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California’s rapid move to allow remote litigation during the pandemic has transformed the state’s courtroom access ecosystem — and exacerbated disparities among some communities.

In a joint Judiciary and Public Safety committee hearing Tuesday, state senators heard from judges, lawyers and experts about the expansion of remote court proceedings. The hearing addressed how in-person and teleconference proceedings will be offered in court now that Governor Gavin Newsom has ended the statewide Covid-19 public health emergency. 

Monterey County Superior Court Judge Marla Anderson said that since California adopted Temporary Rule 3 in April 2020 to allow using technology to conduct remote proceedings, courts have offered remote options “when courts and justice partners could not meet in public settings.” In 2021, the Legislature codified the rule's legal authority with Senate Bill 231, and Assembly Bill 199 extended some sections to criminal matters. 

Monterey County Superior Court Judge Marla Anderson begins a panel before the California Senate on Tuesday. (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

Approximately 6,000 remote hearings take place in California daily, with more than 700 each hour — alleviating the need for about 1.5 million trips to courthouses. Of 35,000 polled, 96% reported positive experiences with remote court proceedings, according to Anderson.

Anderson said remote hearings help preserve equal access to California courts, while reducing time loss and expenses and increasing participation.

John Cotter, president of California Defense Council, said his organization supports lawmakers extending remote appearance options but opposes jury trials being held remotely. Greg Rizio, president of Consumer Attorneys of California, agreed that people support remote proceedings in part because many Californians spend hours commuting to and sitting in crowded courtrooms — wasting hours and dollars.  

Ignacio Hernandez of the California Federation of Interpreters said the idea of remote interpreters was discussed years before Covid, and interpreters have different experiences than other participants due to major noise, connection and video problems.

“They have to know what is being said at every moment in a court proceeding, and have to provide that interpretation to the individual,” he said. “Let’s make sure that whatever we do with remote hearings, we look at it very differently for the interpreter and for the limited English-proficient individual.” 

Michelle Caldwell of the California Court Reporters Association said disruptions of remote meetings hurt court reporters because “our jobs, in fact our licenses, depend on it.”

“A wrong or incomplete transcript denies justice and strips an individual’s liberty,” she said. “The gist of what someone said is not enough — it must be verbatim.”

She said that many courts did not provide court reporters with basics like remote access, screens or adequate sound systems. 

“Remote proceedings deepen the divide between those with access to quality technology, and those who do not,” Caldwell said. “Many do not have access to personal computers, strong connections or private spaces to participate in proceedings remotely.”

Leigh Ferrin speaks to a California Senate committee on Tuesday. (Screenshot via Courthouse news)

Leigh Ferrin, program director for legal nonprofit OneJustice, said remote options increase participation, including among clients from low-income rural communities. But many have struggled, and she said courts must prioritize keeping policies for hearings uniform, providing clear instructions for remote access with tech support for litigants.

When state Senator Aisha Wahab, a Democrat from Hayward and chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Public Safety, asked Caldwell how lawmakers can help, Caldwell said court platforms and technology need more uniformity. There may be policies needed to regulate court appearances, as litigants and lawyers may appear remotely anywhere from construction sites to bedrooms.

“There is not a standard in courtrooms when it comes to court appearances,” she said. 

State Senator Dave Min, a Democrat from Irvine, reminded the panel that many communities don’t have access to high-speed internet. He said the conversation raises questions about basic constitutional rights, since more remote proceedings put pressure on public defenders to settle, and asked if "moving aggressively" to broaden remote hearings raises constitutional concerns.

“Using remote proceedings is the litigants’ choice,” Anderson responded. “Nobody is being forced to appear remotely.”

Los Angeles County’s public defender Ricardo García said the lack of adequate technology in remote hearings creates disparity for litigants because it denies them access. and creates too much possibility “quite frankly, for cheating."

Los Angeles County’s public defender Ricardo García addresses a Senate panel in California. (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

“An error of any type could result in incarceration,” García said. “We’re forgetting the person who the system is supposed to be designed to protect.”

San Bernardino County Assistant District Attorney Michael Fermin agreed that hearings must be live whenever possible, particularly when using witness testimony. 

Stephen Munkelt of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice said that remote hearings should be halted if there is any issue with access or performance, to protect integrity of proceedings and outcomes. 

“We fear the reliability of the courts will suffer, with more innocent people convicted while more guilty persons go free,” he said. 

San Francisco Democrat Senator Scott Wiener addresses a state Senate panel on Tuesday. (Screenshot via Courthouse News)

State Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, said he practiced law for 15 years and sees resistance among judges and attorneys over a return to live hearings. He said he is against remote proceedings being "the broad-based default."

“It's great that we know how to do things remotely when we need to,” he said. “But I think it degrades both our civil and our criminal justice systems.”

State Senator Angelique Ashby, a Democrat from Sacramento, said lawmakers’ primary goal must be protecting the right to due process. 

“We can't make convenience more important than people’s freedom,” Ashby said. 

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