Federal Court in San Diego ‘Business as Usual’ During Pandemic

Edward J. Schwartz United States Courthouse, home of the Southern District of California in San Diego. (Courthouse News photo via Wikipedia)

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Unlike its state court neighbor across the street, the Southern District of California is operating business as usual during the pandemic, with 90% of its clerk’s office staff teleworking from home to process the constant flow of civil filings still coming in.

In a State of the Southern District address Friday hosted by the San Diego chapter of the Federal Bar Association, judicial leaders from San Diego’s federal court revealed it is still operating much the same as before stay-at-home orders were issued to curb the spread of Covid-19, though it has much less foot traffic in the palatial building.

John Morrill, the clerk of the court, said over 90% of his office’s 140 employees are teleworking, with a rotating reduced “skeleton” staff working on-site.

Morrill said court reporters are also working remotely to take the record for Zoom telephonic court hearings being held by federal judges, and courtroom deputies have even sworn in witnesses remotely.

The Southern District of California’s transition to a teleworking court to maintain operations as much as possible during the pandemic stands in stark contrast to its neighbor across Broadway in downtown San Diego.

At its own State of the Court address Wednesday, San Diego Superior Court officials did not clarify when the court will resume normal operations after shuttering all but court-designated “emergency services” since the court was closed March 17.

The court’s executive officer Michael Roddy said Wednesday 30 to 40% of the court’s employees are still working, some remotely and some at the courthouse.

Court spokesperson Emily Cox said Friday the figure is “an average that varies from day to day depending on work on-hand and work we can complete within the existing emergency order.”

She added: “We will bring in additional employees as necessary and increase the number of people who are teleworking as our capabilities expand and as we prepare to eventually reopen.”

Carlos Tavares, managing attorney at Antonyan Miranda, one of the largest family law firms in the state, said lawyers at his firm have had a consistently better experience in federal court compared to state court, even before the pandemic.

“I’ve always been impressed with federal court, they’ve had e-filing for years and their clerks are always helpful in facilitating the process of cases through their courts. I’m impressed at how much better they are, comparing it to the state court’s process,” Tavares said.

San Diego Superior Court and its northern neighbor Orange County Superior Court are outliers among other state courts throughout California which have kept court staff busy processing new civil complaints during reduced operations due to Covid-19.

Like San Diego, Orange County is not currently processing newly filed civil complaints.

Cox confirmed Friday that San Diego Superior Court estimates it has 700 new civil cases waiting to be processed.

A spokesman for Orange County Superior Court did not respond to a request to confirm exactly how many court employees are currently working by press time.

At the federal court address Friday, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw said the number of civil filings has remained constant, and the number of motions filed has increased during the pandemic.

Sabraw said the most significant change at the Southern District of California was the suspension of jury trials.

He said Chief U.S. District Judge Larry Burns — who was unavailable to attend Friday’s meeting — was expected to extend the suspension of jury trials until mid-June.

Once jury services resume, Sabraw said, the court will enact social distancing measures such as spacing jurors out across the entire courtroom during voir dire.

Sabraw said he was unaware of any judicial colleagues conducting trials via Zoom videoconferencing, though Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Margaret Mann said Friday the first bankruptcy trial was expected to be held on Zoom in two weeks.

Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara Major said while judges had “liberally continued dates” at the beginning of the pandemic, “at this point judges expect the attorneys to meet discovery deadlines.”

“The mere fact this pandemic exists is not good cause to continue all the dates,” Major said.

She said early neutral evaluation (ENE) settlement conferences have been held via Zoom and the settlement rate of civil cases in the Southern District “is the same, if not better, than in-person ENEs.”

Major implored attorneys to learn how to conduct depositions remotely, pointing out the court doesn’t know when in-person depositions will be allowed again.

She said many professional organizations such as the Bar Association and court reporting services are providing training to attorneys on conducting remote depositions.

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