(CN) — The San Francisco Superior Court has weathered the pandemic well but judges are eager to have in-person hearings take up a larger share of their days, they said during a remote panel hosted by the San Francisco Bar Association.
“We not only met the challenges with grace and efficiency, but we have done better than that,” said Presiding Judge Samuel Feng. “We have surpassed expectations.”
Feng spoke during a State of the Court Update held annually and sponsored by the San Francisco Bar Association.
Feng and the other participating judges said Zoom hearings offer a level of convenience for judges, lawyers and participants in the criminal and civil divisions of the court, but also have drawbacks.
“I hope to soon return to having a number of in-person hearings,” said Judge Andrew Cheng. “Spending all day on Zoom gets tiring and there is a natural rhythm to a courtroom.”
But Feng said some pandemic restrictions, which have been dispensed with in many other courts, will remain in place. That includes a mandate on face coverings, which will remain in place through May.
“The judges have decided to be safe is the most prudent way to protect staff, attorneys and the judges,” Feng said.
But other judges, including Judge Richard Ulmer, said the remote way of doing business that the court has adopted in reaction to Covid-19 can be frustrating.
“I am not the biggest Zoom fan in the world,” Ulmer said. “There is at least one glitch a day, as there was this morning.” Wednesday’s event was delayed by 15 minutes as the hosts dealt with technical difficulties associated with the hearing.
Some lawyers seemed to indicate they are also done with the remote way of doing business. One asked Ulmer if judges would be willing to order in-person depositions rather than remotely conducted ones.
“I haven’t thought about it to be honest,” Ulmer said before acknowledging that sometimes being in person with someone is superior.
“I understand liking to see someone in the flesh,” he said.
He said it is also sometimes important to have attorneys in the courtroom under the immediate authority of a judge rather than in the comforts of their homes.
“It’s easier to say no if you are in Cleveland than if you are in a courtroom about to catch hell from a judge,” Ulmer said.
But Feng said the court continues to adjudicate cases at a regular pace. When asked if there is a case backlog due to pandemic concerns or any other issues, Feng said the pace of the court remains exemplary.
“I don’t think there is a backlog,” Feng said, explaining the court prioritizes criminal matters over civil cases while encouraging settlements whenever possible.
“There are enough settlement conference judges to settle cases and help trials go away,” he said.
The court is also beginning to bring back in-person jurors, with T. Michael Yuen, the CEO of the court, saying that responses to juror summons are around 60%.
“It’s actually pretty close to pre-pandemic when it was 65%,” Yuen said. “So we are not seeing anything out of the ordinary.”
Feng said the court will revisit its mask mandate and other Covid-related restrictions and accommodations at the end of May.
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