(CN) — With 38 courthouses and nearly 500 judges serving a population of more than 10 million, overseeing the largest court in the nation during a pandemic takes a lot of coordination. For LA County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile, it’s like steering an ocean liner.
“It’s hard to turn. But we’ve made a lot of turns. We’ve had to zig-zag, but now we’re going straight and I think we’re on the right track,” the court’s head judge said Friday, speaking at a virtual fireside chat hosted by UCLA School of Law.
Though the court is currently operating at about 20% capacity with 120 of its 600 courtrooms closed, Brazile said he’s working harder than ever before, gearing up to begin a gradual reopening on June 22.
“I feel like a fire captain,” he said. “I’m putting out little fires each day.”
There’s a lot to consider. Access to all county courthouses is currently restricted to judges and commissioners, court staff and some authorized members of the public, like the press.
The probate department will be the first to be fully operational in all 10 courtrooms.
“The reason we picked probate first, well quite frankly it’s only 10 courtrooms, so it’s small,” Brazile said. “We’ll probably go to complex civil next, which again is another 10 courtrooms. Then we’ll move on to limited civil which is six courtrooms. And then it’s not until mid July when we’ll really ramp it up.”
The 27 civil trial courtrooms may not fully open until the fall.
When courthouses re-open next month, people can expect to see signs and markings on the floor to keep them six feet apart from each other with enforcement by the sheriff’s department, plexiglass shields in front of the judge’s bench, witnesses box, and counsel tables and a strict face mask requirement.
“We just adopted a new mask policy this morning,” he said. “It is required that anybody who enters the courthouse or courtroom wears a mask or face covering. The mask has to cover the nose and the mouth. We’re making it mandatory because the county health order said face coverings are mandatory to come outside your house or enter any facility. Judges are going to have to wear them, witnesses, attorneys, the bailiffs, everyone.”
Only those with a doctor’s note or court approved Americans with Disabilities Act accommodation are exempt.
“If you don’t have one of those two things and you come without a mask, we will offer you a paper mask. If you refuse to wear a paper mask and don’t bring your own, we’re not going to let you in the building,” Brazile said.
He clarified that those who refuse to wear masks without a medical excuse will still have their matters heard, but will have to go to the back of the line.
“They’ll be the last on the calendar, but they will not be allowed to come into the courthouse until their matter is ready and once they come in they’ll be the only matter on calendar. If necessary, we will clear the courtroom and once their matter is heard, they will have to leave the courthouse. That’s the policy as of 8:30 this morning.”
The court is also making extensive use of technology to cut down on the number of people in the building, rolling out a new virtual system for jury assembly. Jurors will go through orientation at home. Brazile said larger courtrooms, community and convention centers, and libraries near the courthouse could be used for jury selection.
“We’re also willing to offer virtual jury voir dire where we would actually pick the jury virtually,” he said. “They would go to a central location and they’d have the video hookups set up and you do your void dire virtually. A lot of members of the bar do not like that. They like the up close and personal effect of talking to the jurors, breathing on them I guess, so we’re gong to give people options.”
The court will also offer virtual trials, though Brazile doesn’t expect most lawyers to jump at the option.
“I think most lawyers won’t want to do that. There’s a lot to be gained from sizing them up and it’s hard to do on video,” he said.
Most civil hearings will be conducted online using a new phone and video conferencing software called L.A. Court Connect. The court was using CourtCall for phone and Zoom for video hearings, but decided to develop its own system that’s compatible with its court case management system.
“That actually for civil moving forward is the recommended or preferred way to go. If you want to come to the courthouse you’re welcome to do that, but we prefer to do it remotely,” Brazile said, adding that it won’t be fully up and running until July 13.
The court is already using Cisco Webex for criminal arraignments and some preliminary hearings with consent from the defendants, a system he credits Sheriff Alexander Villanueva with conceiving.
“A lot of people don’t know that the video arraignment program was his idea and he helped us implement it and it works,” he said.
“We could do a video trial but I didn’t think either the district attorney or the public defender liked that idea. Our position is it’s available if you want it and if you agree to it. If not, we’ll do it the traditional way of in-person in the courtroom,” Brazile said.
With a colossal backlog of 1,400 criminal trials scheduled for this year, Brazile said the court will be promoting a late disposition program to resolve some of those cases. Otherwise, everything else will be pushed back.
“We’re going to have to pull some civil judges to help us with the criminal trials, so it’s going to be a major undertaking,” he said. “That’s going to impact civil in the sense that criminal trials get statutory priority, so we’re going to have to work with that backlog first.”
As for civil trials, Brazile said, “My best estimate right now is September, October, but a lot of it’s going to depend on how well we’re going to get through the criminal trial backlog.”
Brazile laughed when asked if he ever thought that the court would face the largest pandemic since the Spanish Flu during his tenure.
“Oh, of course, absolutely,” he said. “I’m just kidding. No I did not.”
He added, “It has been a challenge in many ways but I’m fortunate that we’ve got a great team of judges, commissioners, and court staff helping to support me each and every day.”
He’s also found a positive angle in technology.
“The remote technology we were planning to implement over 18 months is here now. And that’s really the future for our court,” he said.