California Court Administrator Lays Out Guide for Reopening Courts

The seal of the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts. (Photo the Judicial Council of California via YouTube)

(CN) — California’s court administrator released its guide Wednesday for keeping court employees and the public safe as courthouses start to reopen after months of closures and scaled-down operations due to Covid-19.

The 75-page handbook by the Judicial Council was crafted by the Pandemic Continuity of Operations Working Group, a team of 23 volunteer judges and head clerks representing courts from around the state.

“Our court system, like the rest of state government, must continue to serve the public during an unprecedented pandemic,” Judicial Council administrative director Martin Hoshino said in mid-May when the group’s membership was announced. “The working group will provide a road map for trial courts by reviewing best practices and creating a template and tool kits that different-sized courts can use as they serve the public during the pandemic and beyond.”

A spokesperson for the council said the group met remotely four times over three weeks, and multiple subgroups held additional sessions throughout that time. Their meetings were not open to the public.

“The guide is compiled from approaches outlined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and best practices from the National Center for State Courts, as well as other courts across the state and country,” the spokesperson said in an email. “In addition, the guide is considered a living document that will be revised as we get input and feedback from local courts.”

He added, “They are not guidelines, but a range of considerations and approaches courts can draw from based on their particular situation.”

The handbook starts with the guiding principles of ensuring access to justice and due process while protecting public health, monitoring public health directives and being flexible with services and schedules. Sections on general considerations, facilities, personnel, jury management, case processing, and communications follow.

Some of the guide’s ideas are already being put in place by courts up and down California, such as Plexiglas shields in courtrooms and on filing counters, floor markings to keep people apart, hand sanitizing stations, and requirements that all who enter the courthouse wear a mask or face covering.

The council’s courthouse facilities committee will use $5 million in statewide maintenance funds to reimburse the courts for “temporary safe distancing measures,” according to a statement from the council.

Perhaps the most pressing concern judges and attorneys have expressed in recent weeks has been over when jury trials can safely resume. Courts in Sacramento, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Placer and Riverside counties have either announced plans or have already resumed criminal trials. 

Criminal cases take statutory precedent, pushing civil trials to the back burner. On May 29, the Judicial Council announced it had revised an emergency rule tolling statutes of limitations for civil actions so that it is no longer tied to California’s state of emergency declaration. The amended rule also extends long-term statutes of limitations to Oct. 1, and short-term statutes of limitation to Aug. 3.

Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile of Los Angeles Count Superior Court said this past Friday that his best estimate for when civil trials will resume in his court is September or October. 

There’s been some talk of holding jury trials by video conference, an idea widely disliked by civil attorneys, prosecutors, and public defenders whose preference is for face-to-face interactions with juries. 

With video trials largely unfeasible, the guidebook strongly encourages courts to modify jury assembly rooms to enable jurors to stay six feet apart, but also suggests holding jury selection at other locations and increasing the use of questionnaires for voir dire. 

Impaneled jurors should be given daily temperature checks, wear face coverings, and be reminded that on-site amenities may not be available. Judges should also mention in their jury instructions that jurors should not rush to reach a verdict just to bring the trial to a quicker end.

A “hierarchy of controls” outlined in the council’s guidebook prioritizes temperature screenings for everyone entering the courthouse and limiting capacity by holding hearings remotely, based on OSHA guidance for reopening offices. This is followed by engineering controls like ventilation, signage and physical barriers to maintain separation, administrative controls like staggering work schedules for court staff or allowing employees to work from home, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for all court personnel.

Many courts currently have some percentage of staff working from home to keep the court running at minimum capacity. The council advises courts to allow employees to work from home if they are 65 and older, have medical conditions, are looking after children or an elderly relative, live with or care for someone at risk of getting sick, have problems securing transportation, or are anxious about returning to work.  

Other concerns include whether the employee’s job allows for remote work. Some courts are also having difficulty paying for all the equipment employees need to work from home.

As such, the guidebook recommends working with labor unions to ensure workers’ safety by staggering work schedules, rotating when employees are at the office, providing PPE, spacing out desks, and limiting in-person meetings.

In a statement, Judicial Council Chief Operating Officer Rob Oyung emphasized the handbook’s fluidity at a time when all 58 county courts face unique challenges to reopening. 

“The guide will not be a one-time, static publication, but an evolving resource that improves over time as courts use it and provide their feedback, experience, and additional best practices,” he said. “This is version 1.0, and we expect to keep updating it over the next several months.” 

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