Federal Courts in California Reduce Operations During Second Shutdown

One of two federal courthouses for the Southern District of California. (Courthouse News photo / Bianca Bruno)

(CN) — California’s federal courts have been forced to reduce in-person operations this week amid a new round of stay-at-home orders due to an explosion of Covid-19 cases which has strained hospital ICU capacity nearly statewide.

All courthouses in the Central District of California in Los Angeles and surrounding counties will be closed to the public for the next month, with in-person court hearings suspended through Jan. 8 in favor of telephonic and video conference hearings.

Chief U.S. District Judge Philip S. Gutierrez announced the Central District activated its “Continuity of Operations Plan” — effective beginning Dec. 10 — due to “the recent unprecedented surge of Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations, and test positivity rates in the Central District.”

Courts across the state reversed course — after largely resuming operations this summer following pandemic-related closures this past spring — this past week when Governor Gavin Newsom announced stay-at-home orders last week any time a region has fewer than 15% of its ICU beds available. The orders include travel restrictions, business closures and “100% masking and physical distancing.”

The San Francisco Bay Area, home to the Northern District, decided to voluntarily comply with new restrictions, rather than waiting for their ICU capacity to drop below 15%. Southern California, home to both the Central and Southern districts, saw its ICU bed availability drop below 15% this past weekend, triggering the new restrictions.

Even though the Southern District of California is within a region now subjected to the stay-at-home order, its courthouses are the only federal courthouses in the state which remain open without restrictions to the public.

But in an order made available Tuesday, Chief U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns said the latest stay-at-home orders generally restricting indoor operations to 20% of the usual capacity “has caused me to reevaluate whether to continue to conduct in-person court proceedings without seriously jeopardizing public health and safety.”

The Southern District of California joined all federal courts across the state in suspending in-person hearings and jury trials, but judges in the district maintain discretion whether to hold in-person criminal and civil hearings “as may be lawful and appropriate to ensure the fairness of the proceedings and preserve the rights of the parties.”

American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties Legal Director David Loy told Courthouse News while getting his office’s cases resolved has not been affected by pandemic-related court restrictions, “the real cost” of closing courthouses is delay of jury trials, particularly for incarcerated criminal defendants.

“It is a challenging position because there are significant public health risks to bringing people into the courthouse for trial. What little I know says the highest public health risk is lots of people congregating in a closed room for long periods of time. That, by definition, is what a trial is,” Loy said.

Loy said pandemic-related court restrictions, particularly trial delays, raise larger questions about mass incarceration and detention.

“What is on the docket in the Southern District? Do they need to be charging this many cases? If people who were detained received credit for time served, should they have been detained in the first place?” Loy asked.

He pointed out his office filed class actions in the Southern District challenging the continued detention of immigrants and criminal defendants during the pandemic. While the ACLU was able to successfully advocate for the release of about 100 medically vulnerable immigrant detainees, Loy said his office was not successful challenging the detention of criminal defendants.

Civil rights and environmental attorney Bryan Pease told Courthouse News the various iterations of pandemic-related closures and restrictions have not affected his pending cases.

“It hasn’t affected me because everything has been over the phone,” Pease said.

“I’ve had motions pending for a long time in federal court prior to pandemic, so there have been some delays, but I’m not sure how much is pandemic-related. The real major impact of closures is people not being able to have trials, which is what they need to resolve their case and be made whole,” Pease added.

He said federal court “has been taking care of business,” noting even when San Diego County Superior Court closed for a couple months this past spring, the Southern District of California remained open.

“The federal system is much better equipped in general, which has led to it being able to handle the pandemic issues better than the state system,” Pease said.

Federal courts throughout the state have pivoted to virtual court hearings by allowing the public and members of the press to call into teleconference and videoconference hearings. The policies remain in place during the latest restrictions.

While nearly all in-person federal hearings are temporarily suspended throughout the state, both the Northern District and the Eastern District of California, in the Greater Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley regions, will continue holding grand jury proceedings.

A state of the courts address by Judge Burns in the Southern District and San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne, hosted by the San Diego County Bar Association, is scheduled for this Thursday.

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