(CN) — A wholly reasonable request during normal times, Carlos Tavares is pushing for the right to walk into the shiny new $556 million downtown San Diego courthouse and file the lawsuits piling up and gathering dust on his desk.
Hell, Tavares would even swap the state-of-the-art facility for the asbestos-riddled old courthouse on Broadway if it meant getting motions time-stamped, securing case numbers and starting discovery for his clients.
“San Diego County Superior Court is not open,” Tavares said. “All of the citizens of San Diego who have to file in state court are without their rights; you don’t have rights if you don’t have access to a courtroom.”
Like most states, the coronavirus pandemic has shattered day-to-day functions at California courts and forced presiding judges to take unprecedented emergency action. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has empowered the 58 individual superior courts to make their own decisions and do things like suspend jury trials, prioritize criminal matters, utilize videoconferencing and suspend civil proceedings to greatly reduce in-person court appearances.
Now over a month into the emergency, the varied approaches have shaped an uneven system where 40 million Californians’ levels of judicial access hinges mostly on where they live: some courts have adapted while others have resigned themselves to shutting out the public.
Los Angeles Hums Along
A large portion of the state’s courts are only accepting and or processing matters like domestic temporary restraining orders, gun violence restraining orders and ex parte emergency relief. But in Los Angeles parties can still e-file the normal range of new civil lawsuits, and the clerk’s staff continues to docket the new filings at its normal pace.
Operating with just a quarter of its usual staff, Los Angeles Superior Court has shown that it is nonetheless practicable to continue providing public access at its 38 courthouses during the pandemic.
The nation’s largest trial court, which serves a population of more than 10 million, is not hearing law and motion matters during the emergency, but it has continued to provide public access to new e-filings and court hearings.
The court has worked with the media by giving reporters access to criminal hearings and by providing the press with the ability to review new e-filings as soon as they are received, before docketing or what is variously called “processing” or “acceptance.”
Last week, the court also started a new video appearance project to help with arraignments and it continues to handle certain dependency and delinquency hearings remotely. The various efforts by court officials demonstrate the enormous court’s surprising agility as well as its foresight, all of which will likely help with the calendaring nightmare that lurks around the corner, when the sprawling set of courthouses reopen.
“I want to express my gratitude and respect to all the dedicated essential court, law enforcement and justice partner employees who have spent many hours over the past two weeks to organize, test and launch this ambitious, county-wide video appearance project,” said Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile in a statement.
Orange Falls Behind
The access fault line is widest and most visible among the counties of Southern California. While the state’s busiest court has kept its new filings and hearings open to public scrutiny, its neighbors have gone dark.
Where LA and other major courts including San Francisco, Santa Clara and Fresno have continued processing new complaints with downsized staffs, people looking to file in Orange County and San Diego are out of luck.
Lawyers can currently file electronically as required in Orange County Superior, but complaints are not being docketed or assigned case numbers, meaning the cases are effectively sealed until the clerks go back to work. And this week the court extended its closure through May 22.