San Diego Courts Go Digital, Adjust Document Costs in Pandemic Response

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

SAN DIEGO (CN) — In their final state of the courts address for 2020, USDC Southern District of California Chief Judge Larry Alan Burns and San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne said Thursday many pandemic-related changes, including document costs and digital court hearings and filings, will be here to stay.

While the two courts flank either side of Broadway in downtown San Diego, the way they have adjusted court operations due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and how the public has responded, has differed.

In response to complaints about the costs to download court documents, Judge Alksne announced during the virtual address starting in the new year the court will implement an adjusted cost structure that will result in a cost savings for 79% of court users.

Currently, it costs $7.50 to download documents up to 10 pages, with 7 cents charged for each additional page downloaded in San Diego Superior Court, and costs not to exceed $40 per document.

The new fee structure will charge $1 per page for the first five pages, with 40 cents charged for each additional page downloaded. Costs to download a single document will not exceed $50 starting Jan. 1.

Customers will see savings to download documents that are 11 pages or less — which will cost $7.40 under the new structure — with a significant cost savings to download documents that are only a few pages long.

Last year, San Diego Superior Court’s revenue for document downloads was $1.2 million. Under the new document fee change in 2021, that revenue will go down, public information officer Emily Cox said in an email.

Both judges said the latest stay-at-home orders for Southern California will not affect current court operations, except for jury trials, which resumed late this past summer and have been paused for the remainder of the year.

“If there’s any silver lining to this latest shutdown, it comes when court proceedings typically slow down,” Burns said.

Burns said “trials have gone off without any hitches at all” in the Southern District, where there have been verdicts in all 14 cases tried since August, three of which Burns presided over.

But Alksne said San Diego Superior Court is still getting less jurors responding to summons. 

To make-up for a lower response by jurors, Alksne said the court will not stop summoning jurors, even during stay-at-home orders, “because I want to be nimble and ready to pick up [next year.]” She said jurors not selected to serve on criminal trials will be “repurposed” for civil juries.

Complicating the ability to try cases in Superior Court — where Alksne said 2,000 criminal cases await trial — is San Diego’s eviction moratorium, which will expire in January, and unlawful detainer cases will take priority for being tried.

There are currently 20 unlawful detainer cases on deck for trial, Alksne said.

Comparing the courts, Burns said “It’s much easier to get a jury here, I don’t know why our numbers have been so different in responses.”

He said upwards of 80% of prospective jurors have responded to summons to serve in the Southern District, which has similar procedures in place as San Diego Superior Court for allowing jurors to request being excused from service for pandemic-related reasons.

Both judges said no Covid-19 cases had been contracted in their courthouses. Judge Burns noted a doctor who served as a juror for a trial he presided over said, “I’m safer here than in the hospital I work in.”

Adjustments to virtual court proceedings are still being made nine months into the pandemic, with Judge Alksne confirming San Diego Superior Court is working to transfer holding all court hearings, including civil cases, via Microsoft Teams rather than through the Court Call system which charges parties $100 to appear.

To help free up civil clerks’ phone lines, San Diego Superior Court also recently implemented an online reservation system for civil motion hearing dates, Alksne added.

Burns said he was concerned the Southern District’s settlement rate would go down with virtual court hearings, especially for case management conferences held soon after cases are filed which can turn into de-facto settlement conferences due to all parties appearing before the magistrate judge.

“I was pleasantly surprised to learn even when Zoom was being used, it was quite effective at settling cases that ought to be settled at the early stage,” Burns said.

Alksne said she expects remote proceedings to outlast the pandemic, especially for settlement conferences, family law matters and remote appearances for out-of-state witnesses.

She also noted warrants are now filed electronically, freeing up law enforcement officers from having to execute them personally in court.

“We get lots of warrants every day… rather than having a parade of officers, taking time away from their job protecting the community, they can send an email,” Alksne said.

“The technology is there, it will stay in the courtrooms and we will only get better at it,” Alksne said, noting the courts could not have avoided a second shutdown without the technology implemented during the pandemic.

The state of the court address was hosted by the San Diego County Bar Association and moderated by its President Johanna Schiavoni.

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