SAN DIEGO (CN) — San Diego County federal and state court staff — including judges, clerks and attorneys — quietly hitched a ride to the region’s expanded Covid-19 vaccination efforts over the weekend after they were grouped in the emergency services sector under a vague definition which includes those involved “in the administration of justice.”
Last week, San Diego County public health officials announced at a weekly press briefing vaccine appointments were being opened up for teachers and child care workers, fire fighters, law enforcement and grocery store workers, among others.
But San Diego County Supervisor Chairman Nathan Fletcher and county public health officials did not alert the public or court staff involved “in the administration of justice” until the following day, Feb. 25, employees were eligible to make appointments to receive their Covid-19 vaccine starting Feb. 27.
The vaccine eligibility includes “government personnel and contracted vendors working in judicial or administrative facilities involved in the administration of justice.” It does not apply to private practice attorneys.
That makes San Diego County the largest California county to open Covid-19 vaccine appointments for court staff. Included are employees of San Diego Superior Court, the District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Southern District of California, U.S. Attorney’s Office and Federal Defenders of San Diego.
San Diego Superior Court spokeswoman Emily Cox confirmed via email all court employees and judges are included in the vaccine eligibility, including 135 judges, 19 commissioners and just over 1,100 court employees.
Cox said court employees and judges are going through their private health care providers or the county’s public health website to schedule their vaccine appointments.
“We are aware of employees who have already received the vaccine, either through an earlier age-based eligibility and through more recent employment-based eligibility, but we are not tracking when or whether or not employees are getting the vaccine,” Cox said in the email, confirming vaccines for court staff are voluntary and not required to work in public-facing positions.
Court staff were previously slated to be included in the county’s Tier 1C vaccination plan. The bumped-up vaccine priority for court staff follows months of advocacy by San Diego and statewide court leaders pushing for court employees to be included in early vaccination efforts to better ensure the administration of justice, which was significantly stymied during the pandemic.
San Diego County Superior Court Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne was joined by District Attorney Summer Stephan and Public Defender Randy Mize in a letter Jan. 27 to San Diego Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten in calling for Covid-19 vaccine prioritization for about 3,000 employees, lawyers and judges.
San Diego Superior Court only completed three jury trials this past fall in “Plexiglas-equipped courtrooms” before the post-Thanksgiving surge in Covid-19 cases throughout the Golden State which prompted a second “stay at home” order. Now that the order has been rescinded by Governor Gavin Newsom, the court will pick-up where it left off.
“Within our current operational limitations, the Superior Court only has a limited number of courtrooms for jury trials that allow for social distancing or that are equipped with the recommended Plexiglas barriers. However, if all employees, lawyers and judges were vaccinated, (approximately 3,000 people) we could use other courtrooms, expand our services and appropriate public access and resolve many more of our backlogged cases more expeditiously,” Alksne wrote in the letter.
Nearly 1,000 employees with the District Attorney’s Office are also eligible to receive their vaccines, in addition to employees with the County Public Defender’s Office.
Jenny Yoo Williams, law clerk to Chief Judge Dana Sabraw for the Southern District of California confirmed to Courthouse News 260 federal court employees including judges, chambers staff and clerk’s office staff are also included in county’s latest vaccination effort.
The Southern District is advising employees to make appointments at the Scripps Del Mar Fairgrounds Vaccination Super Station. Some Southern District employees have already received their vaccines, though the court is not keeping track and like in state court, employees are not required to get the vaccine.
Days ahead of the announcement court staff would be included in the latest vaccination tier, Sabraw drafted letters addressed to “Vaccination Centers” which staff with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Criminal Justice Act Defense Panel attorneys could provide to receive vaccinations as “front line workers.”
In the letters, Sabraw noted the attorneys and staff work in “high-contact, public facing roles as part of their official duties” and should be given priority for vaccination.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office said personnel from the office are "eligible to receive Covid-19 vaccinations as Phase 1B Emergency Services workers.”
Calls and emails for comment were not immediately returned by the Federal Defenders of San Diego.
On Tuesday, Sabraw issued a supplemental plan for resuming criminal jury trials in the Southern District starting March 8. Only “short cause” criminal trials which take no more than four days to complete and where a single defendant is on trial will take place until June 1.
Civil jury trials will not take place in the Southern District until after June 1.