SAN DIEGO (CN) — A state of the court address Wednesday by leaders of San Diego Superior Court did not clarify when the court — which has been closed a month and a half — will resume normal operations, something it anticipates doing on a piecemeal basis guided by local and state public health directives.
While “there’s a lot of talk up and down the state” comparing how different courts have adapted their operations during the Covid-19 pandemic, San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge Lorna Alksne emphasized, “Every court is differently situated.”
“We are closed like every day is Sunday,” Alksne said.
“What I can tell you is that we’re doing the best we can,” she added.
Alksne said California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye approved extending the court closure to May 22, though the court is unlikely to fully open then. The closure extension coincided with the indefinite extension of San Diego County’s state-at-home orders Wednesday.
“If you had said to me in March we wouldn’t know when we would reopen, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Alksne said.
But San Diego Superior Court and its northern neighbor, Orange County Superior Court, are outliers among the state’s largest courts for completely shuttering all civil processing operations during the extended pandemic closures.
Alksne’s State of the Court address Wednesday was virtually attended by 2,600 attorneys and members of the legal community, though neither the court nor the San Diego County Bar Association, which organized the event, invited members of the media to attend to get the latest information on the court.
The court closure and subsequent pared down operations have resulted in over 48,000 pending cases in the San Diego County which must be rescheduled, Alksne said, including more than 19,000 criminal cases and 6,000 civil cases.
While the court has heard some – 667 – criminal cases via video teleconference since it expanded the essential services offered during the closure, San Diego Superior Court still has a backlog of over 600 criminal arraignments it will start to hold Friday.
Court Executive Officer Michael Roddy said as of Tuesday, 7,400 new e-filed documents were in the queue to be processed in the order they were received. “The “vast majority” of the 7,400 new e-filed documents waiting in the queue to be processed are additional materials to existing cases including proofs of service, requests for dismissals, requests for clerk’s defaults, among new case filings.
The court estimates 700 of those documents are new civil cases waiting to be processed. Processing of new civil litigation had been completely halted during the court closure.
“We will resume filing and processing when the court is prepared to move away from the closed holiday status,” Roddy said.
All documents prior to the court’s closure March 17 have been processed, Roddy added.
He said to limit person-to-person transactions, the court may implement clerical stations or drop boxes for new filings at the courthouse entrance when the court reopens “to limit people traversing the hallways.”
Alksne said the court needed to maintain its “holiday status” to continue the closure during the pandemic. She said suggestions by attorneys judges should perform more duties in the meantime, such as issuing court orders, were not feasible because, “Once we start signing orders, we’re not on holiday.”
In terms of new services the court is creating to address its case backlog, Alksne said a new online scheduling tool will be made available for attorneys to schedule court hearings with San Diego judges.
E-filing for family law matters will also be finalized around the time the court opens. The online transition had already been in place prior to the court’s closure.
Alksne said the measures would ensure there’s “as few people in the building as possible until social distancing is lifted and perhaps a vaccine is found.”
Roddy confirmed the court will likely reopen in a phased manner over time.
To prepare for reopening, the court has purchased personal protective equipment for employees including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer and is installing plexiglass screens at business counters.
The court also amended its cleaning services contract so high-contact areas like door handles and elevator buttons are frequently cleaned, Roddy said.
“When we talk about restoring services, it will likely look very different than before we closed March 17,” Roddy said.
Roddy said between 30 to 40% of the court’s employees are still working, some remotely and some at the courthouse.
A spokeswoman for the court did not confirm by press time whether the majority of the court’s employees not currently working had been furloughed.
One-third of employees polled said they would not be able to return to work due to childcare or family care responsibilities, which have changed since the pandemic or because they were considered high-risk for contracting the disease, Roddy said.
To support teleworking, the court has ordered several hundred computers and other equipment so employees can work from home, Roddy added.
While the court doesn’t have the figures for how its upcoming budget will be impacted by the pandemic, Roddy said the proposed budget from January is “off the table.”
“I don’t think the news will be good and we’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” Roddy said.
Antonyan Miranda attorney Carlos Tavares told Courthouse News “nothing was done today.”
“They showed up and said ‘these are our excuses for not being open’ and I’ve only become more upset and angry because the rule of law is fundamental [but does not exist without] access to the court,” Tavares said.
“They’re going to open up for business with two months of backlog. It’s a hell of a disservice to the people. Law is the foundation of our society,” he added.