(CN) — Nearly 600 courtrooms in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system closed their doors this spring amid the coronavirus pandemic, stalling nearly all court cases in the civil, criminal, probate and family law divisions.
Court staff and Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile pivoted one of the nation’s largest court systems to a remote model with the launch of the LA CourtConnect (LACC) portal for attorneys and participants in the court system. Court filings and access to court filings online remained active even as courts were closed to the public.
Brazile said the court installed the LACC program in courtrooms across multiple divisions in about 90 days instead of the originally planned 18-month rollout. The top priority for the court has been to keep the public, attorneys, staff and judicial officers safe and healthy during this pandemic, he said.
“Due to Covid-19 it has been challenging, unpredictable, a learning experience and rewarding,” Brazile told Courthouse News via email. “Responding to Covid-19 has demonstrated the importance of teamwork, transparency and trust, and why LASC court staff and bench officers are truly the ‘Best of the Best.’”
Brazile was first elected as presiding judge of LASC just two years ago along with Assistant Presiding Judge Eric Taylor. Brazile is the first Black judge named to the position and starting in 2021, Taylor will be the second to hold the title.
When asked what the experience meant to him Brazile said, “Opportunity, appreciation, gratitude and a way to give back to the community and to the people who have helped me and supported me throughout my life.”
He said that being in his position allowed him to be a role model and to let people know what is possible if “you believe in yourself and allow others to help and support you.”
“Lastly, it demonstrated to me that in order to achieve your goals in life and in your career, you have to rely on hard work, humility, integrity, courage and prayer,” said Brazile, who was first appointed to LA County Superior Court by then-Governor Gray Davis in 2003.
But before that, Taylor and Brazile worked in the LA county counsel’s office and became fast friends.
Taylor was deputy counsel and just 36 when then-Governor Pete Wilson appointed him to the Inglewood Municipal Court in 1998.
This month, Brazile announced Taylor would succeed him to lead the courts. In a statement, Taylor said he was focused on the “safe expansion of access to justice after a 6-month hiatus” in criminal and civil trials, which will all be complicated by the virus and a state budget that reflects a $168 million cut to the state trial court system due to the economic fallout from the pandemic.
Taylor, the incoming presiding judge, refused a request for an interview.
In 2015, Taylor was elected to a second term as president of the California Judges Association (CJA) and he told Courthouse News Service about the opportunity to advocate for the state’s justice system outside of the courtroom.
“I enjoy it because it’s what we’ve dedicated our lives to do as judges. We’ve dedicated our lives to serving people,” said Taylor.
Stanley Bissey, at the time the executive director of the CJA , recently described Taylor as “quietly effective as a leader.”
“He wasn’t one to raise his voice or to anger easily. Eric always let everybody have their say in the room and was last to speak. That was his testament to his ability as a leader,” said Bissey, who is now executive director of the LA County Bar Association.
In 2003, Bissey was new to the job at CJA when Taylor was first elected as president of the organization that represents the state’s active and retired state judges and commissioners.
Amid budget cuts at the time, the Judicial Council of California announced the state would no longer pay member dues to CJA.
“In a joking tone Eric said to me, ‘Well, I hope you enjoyed the shortest job you’ve ever had,’” Bissey said in a recent interview.
“But we rolled up our sleeves and that year we went out and visited members in darn near every county across the state and listened to judges, the challenges they were facing and reminded them why and how CJA could be relevant to them,” said Bissey.
Shortly before the pandemic shutdown, Bissey and Taylor were working on a mentor program to match volunteers with students to introduce them to the court system and show them a possible career opportunity.
“Involving the community as partners in our legal system, especially young people, is a wonderful way to build trust and to positively influence future social justice,” said Taylor in a statement.
Taylor grew up in the Crenshaw District in LA County, graduated from the University of Virginia’s law school and was an extern for California Supreme Court Justice Allen Broussard. Broussard, who died in 1996, was the first Black judge to be elected president of CJA in 1972.
Taylor’s father, John Taylor Jr., was a Freedom Fighter who participated in civil rights demonstrations in Jackson, Mississippi, and was jailed for two weeks in 1961 after entering a “white only” train station waiting room. Taylor’s grandmother, Ella Mae Ferneil, was California’s first Black registered nurse.
“I’m proud that my father put his life on the line to ride on buses and sit at counters and fight for the rights of everyone to be treated equally in this country. And I’m really proud of my grandmother, who was a trailblazer too. She had to endure many obstacles and setbacks to reach the point that she did,” Taylor said.
In a statement, California State Assembly member Chris Holden said on Taylor’s soon-to-be new position, “As the second African American to be elected presiding judge following the Honorable Kevin Brazile, the Los Angeles County Superior Court has again marked a historic achievement.”
As presiding judge, Taylor will assign cases and judges to departments and oversee the policies of the county’s 47 courthouses and its nearly 5,400 court staff. His term as presiding judge begins Jan. 1, 2021.