SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — After nearly three months of plotting a reopening path, Sacramento County Superior Court is ready to debut a new “socially distanced” era of criminal justice featuring temperature checks, mandatory masks and jurors behind Plexiglas.
Faced with approaching speedy-trial deadlines, Presiding Judge Russell Hom announced Thursday the court had resumed two criminal trials delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and would start new jury selection and trials on June 15.
“We’re going to try and get as many trials going as possible,” Hom said of the decision. “The longer we wait, the mountain of cases grows.”
Like each of California’s 58 trial courts, operations at Sacramento Superior were abruptly halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic as officials moved to keep people out of court facilities. Active trials were suspended for a minimum of 60 days, employees were sent home and thousands of criminal and civil cases immediately delayed.
Since the initial closure, the court has increased its range of operations incrementally through temporary filing stations, video hearings for custody matters and preliminary criminal matters streamed online.
According to Hom, the court is putting the finishes touches on framework that will allow criminal trials to resume at the Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse in downtown Sacramento. He says the two paused trials that completed this week were sort of test-runs and will help the court iron out remaining operational wrinkles.
To comply with social distancing guidelines the court will minimize courthouse traffic, summon smaller juror pools, stagger hearings, limit elevator and restroom capacity and utilize larger jury assembly rooms. In addition, jurors will be masked and Plexiglas will be installed in courtrooms while the court promises to enhance sanitation in common areas and courtrooms.
In a phone interview, the court’s first Asian-American presiding judge hinted that the pandemic-induced changes will likely extend the length of jury selections and trials themselves.
Not only will the court be forced to reduce the number of trials it can handle at a time, Hom predicts a trial that may have taken a week to complete before the pandemic could last up to three under the new guidelines. Furthermore, multiple defendant trials are off the table for the time being due to logistical hurdles.
“There’s no playbook for something like this,” Hom said of the unprecedented court closure.
Efficiency has long been an issue at the dilapidated 55-year-old main facility and its warts are re-emerging as the court attempts to return to normalcy. Hom said there are no “great solutions” in terms of figuring out how to assemble upwards of 75 people and keep them at least six feet apart.
The average courtroom is 29 feet wide, below the 32-foot standard, meaning even under normal conditions court staff are often forced to move furniture around to accommodate litigants and juries.
Seating will be extremely limited even in the largest courtrooms and chairs will need to be reserved for witnesses and victims. Hom added that the amount of public seating — if any — will be decided on a trial-by-trial basis, meaning family members and reporters will likely have to watch proceedings online.
“We don’t have a lot of room, we will have jurors even sitting in the back rows,” Hom said.
The pandemic has brought additional stress to court staff and litigants, but Hom said the various parties are taking the changes in stride. He applauded the court’s justice partners for “approaching the pandemic in a tremendous way” and for their flexibility.
Steve Grippi, chief deputy district attorney of Sacramento County, said the office supports Hom’s decision to resume criminal trials.
“Presiding Judge Hom and his team allowed ample opportunity for all parties to provide input and address concerns related to the revised court procedures,” Grippi wrote in an email. “This led to a process that will fairly and adequately balance public health and safety, the constitutional rights of the accused, and our victims’ right to substantial justice.”
Various other superior courts have either already resumed criminal trials or publicly announced plans to resume, including Placer, San Luis Obispo, Riverside and San Joaquin.
As for the possibility of civil trials, Hom says the court will likely reassess its resources next month after the criminal side has resumed.
Like society as a whole, the judge says Sacramento Superior must adapt to the new normal — like it or not.
“This court has forever changed because of this,” Hom concluded.