San Diego Superior to Resume Limited Operations From Courthouse Lobby

The San Diego County Superior Courthouse, opened in 2017. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — After being closed for 10 weeks while courts up and down California worked to remain open during the Covid-19 pandemic, San Diego Superior Court officials announced Wednesday the court will resume services after Memorial Day.

The court will operate the clerk’s office from the courthouse lobby.

San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne told over 1,000 attorneys, reporters and members of the public who listened in to a State of the Court address over Zoom on Wednesday the court would resume services May 26. But the courthouse will not reopen to the public “until this pandemic is over.”

“What I really want everyone to focus on is that our resumption of services on Tuesday is not opening the courthouse,” Alksne said.

“As we open back up again, we can’t just go from full stop to open completely in light of Covid-19 restrictions.”

Alksne emphasized “it’s going to be a slow resumption of services” as the court works through its 10-week backlog including thousands of e-filed documents and new civil filings in addition to 63,000 pending cases that need to be rescheduled.

The clerk’s office will essentially be moved to the courthouse lobby to allow only those seeking emergency services available during the court’s closure to enter the courthouse.

Drop boxes for accepting new documents will be set up at “triage tables” at the courthouse entrance, as will computer kiosks to look up court documents. Civil filings submitted to the court during the pandemic will be date-stamped and processed starting Tuesday, with the oldest cases processed first.

Those entering the building will be required to wear masks or face coverings and will have their temperature taken, Alksne said.

A spokeswoman for the court said they would not know until Friday whether journalists would be granted access to the pressroom at the courthouse next week.

The resumption of services follows similar measures taken by other courts in California to ensure public access to the judicial branch, which has been identified as an essential service during the pandemic.

But unlike other high-volume courts like San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Diego Superior Court completely abandoned processing of new civil cases.

Last week it also suspended updates to the court’s online index of the civil cases litigants can still file during the emergency closure, including restraining orders, harassment cases and elder abuse cases.

While the court will be open for business, it will expand its remote operations to keep people out of the building who don’t need to enter, Alksne said, including through requiring remote appearances, filing and email.

The court has already implemented its first online scheduling tool for attorneys to schedule status conferences in civil matters with the judges assigned to their case. And it has received and answered more than 9,000 emails from attorneys and the public seeking specific information about pending cases.

Alksne said the court expects to take six weeks to schedule out the hearings.

Antonyan Miranda attorney Carlos Tavares told Courthouse News “the update fell on frustrated ears because it is not done yet.”

“A county that can close down everything in a few days cannot adapt to reopen the court after two months? No one believes that for one minute,” Tavares said.

“If the San Diego court wanted to be open, they would be open.  The truth is they are in no hurry.  It is not a problem for them. They pat themselves on the back telling us how hard they are working yet the doors remain closed,” Tavares added.

And criminal cases will take precedence over civil matters, Alksne said, as the court has more than 20,000 criminal cases which need to be reset. The court worked to offset that burden by conducting over 2,200 remote criminal hearings during the emergency closure.

“We are getting better, we are getting faster. It seems remote hearings are really moving quite well,” Alksne said

But even though the court has found its groove by holding remote criminal hearings, Alksne warned it would likely be a while before jury trials would start again. She said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is expected to extend the order suspending jury trials through June 15.

And once jury trials do resume, a “backlog of serious criminal jury trials” will be addressed before the court holds civil trials, Alksne said.

Assistant Presiding Judge Michael Smyth said that to prepare for the resumption of jury trials, he is heading a group of eight judges tasked with coming up with procedures for effectively running trials and jury selection while maintaining social distancing requirements.

Doing so will take a lot of readjustments, as evidenced by a list of concerns Smyth rattled off regarding spacing constraints, health screening for jurors, jury summons and prescreening, handling of physical evidence and exhibits, jury deliberation, and other logistics that will have to be reconfigured to comply with public health guidelines.

Smyth said to comply with 6-foot social distancing requirements, only 13 jurors could be allowed in a courtroom at a time, with four seated in the jury box and nine seated in the audience.

But that accommodation does not include space for members of the public or media to watch trial proceedings, Smyth said.

“We’re very concerned about public access to the court. We believe strongly in general media access,” Smyth said.

Amid social distancing protocols and accommodations the court must make during the pandemic, it also stands to lose a significant chunk of its operating budget.

Court Executive Officer Michael Roddy confirmed San Diego Superior Court is looking at a $12-15 million budget cut this year after Governor Gavin Newsom announced his revised state budget last week that contained significant hit to the state’s judicial branch.

Roddy said the court would likely operate with a $175 million budget; prior to the Great Recession it had a $200 million budget.

To operate within the constraints of the reduced budget, Roddy said the court would make layoffs to reduce its workforce and would decrease expenditures.

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