California Chief Justice Sees Many Court Pandemic Changes as Permanent

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye delivers her State of the Judiciary address before a joint session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The pandemic has left an indelible mark on the courts, as it has with nearly all aspects of life. California’s chief justice said Wednesday that many of the changes courts were forced to adopt in order to continue to do business may become permanent. 

“I believe our way of hearing cases and our way of preparing cases for trial has changed forever,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told reporters at an annual meeting held this year by videoconference. 

A transition to remote technology, hastened out of necessity by the pandemic, has helped courts continue to serve the public amid ever-changing local and statewide shutdown orders, and the convenience of phone and video hearings may lead to most routine matters being conducted remotely far into the post-pandemic future.

“The courts have been tremendous in staying open — a feat unto itself given all the various state and local orders,” she said “We did a relatively smooth-ish transition to remote technology, and I’d like to say if the pandemic had hit three or four years ago we would not have been in the position we are in.”

Cantil-Sakauye said she foresees continuances, most arraignments and “many, many hearings that involve purely attorney against attorney” going permanently remote.

While the remote shift has been expedient for some, the chief justice said it has also made her realize the hardship it’s caused. 

“There is a digital divide,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “We’ve met with communities that were already in trouble, at least as far as access goes, before the pandemic. Folks who had difficulty before are having even greater difficulty now trying to access the courts with remote technology.”

She added that high-powered lawyers have complained that remote technology cannot work for selecting juries or conducting jury trials. 

“There is no replacement for face to face. That is the gold standard. We’re trying to pick the best of what technology offers but continuing to offer, for those who need it, person-to person human contact to provide essential and meaningful access to justice,” she said. 

She noted that the public has been turning to the courts more than ever this year, particularly in cases involving housing, employment and wage fraud. 

“It’s important to keep in mind how important courts are in crisis,” she said, something the chief justice and top judicial administrator Martin Hoshino hope Governor Gavin Newsom will remember during next year’s budget negotiations.

After a promising January proposal, Newsom’s May revised budget dealt a devastating blow to the entire branch with a 10% baseline funding cut.

“January was wonderful. It was a turn the corner, full sails up kind of event. And I’m still having a hard time watching the demolition that happened afterwards and how quickly it happened,” Hoshino said.

But he said Newsom’s funding trigger — which would have restored that 10% had the federal government come through with aid — left him uncharacteristically optimistic about the future. Perhaps the judiciary won’t see the bone-deep cuts it suffered during the Great Recession.

“I saw the governor’s office and the Legislature start to recognize the vital role of the judiciary in the very fabric of a government’s core services,” Hoshino said. “I like to think that we won’t suffer the amount of cuts related to the Great Recession and that the deficits hopefully won’t be as bad. And even if we do, we’re going to come out of it a little quicker than we did last time. 

“So far the conversation and negotiations are going well with the administration. So I’m going into this year and the coming years with maybe more optimism than I usually do.”

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