Visiting the Court in the Covid Era: A Firsthand Account From the Battlefield

Courthouse News’ Orange County, California, reporter tells of some of the hoops she has to jump through to make her daily visit to the courthouse in the age of Covid.

The Orange County Superior Courthouse in Santa Ana, California. (Courthouse News photo / Joanna Mendoza)

The poor fellow who needs to file a court paper or pay a fine inside the state courthouse in Orange County Superior Court must still wait for an hour or two, despite the steady relaxation of Covid rules around restaurants and other public locations in California. But the court recently began allowing online appointments so those who need to get inside check in with a court worker and walk without waiting inside.

The appointments for the records room at the courthouse must be made for a specific time slot two weeks in advance. Woe to the reporter who forgets his or her time slot. The main court in a county with 3.4 million people is opening in baby steps after shuttering its doors to most people back in December 2020.

One still cannot just walk into the court and proceed to the department that handles the matter that brought them there in the first place. If you need to conduct business in the civil department, for example, you must access the court’s website and schedule an in-person counter service appointment.

Seems simple enough, but it’s not. Appointments are only available two weeks in advance, with time slots every half hour, and these appointments go quickly. After entering your name and email address, a confirmation email will be sent, which you need to enter the building. Since I access the court every day, I need to perform this procedure each day.

If you forget, then you’re straight out of luck because the appointments will have all been taken.

In the first stage of the reopening, a little over a year ago, the court had set up a triage system outside the front doors with tents designated to different departments, along with an initial kiosk manned with a court employee who directed you, based on your needs, to the coinciding tent where court employees would further assist you, giving you a colored ticket to get you inside.

Once inside and past security, you needed to check in again at a makeshift desk where a court employee would check your name on the appointment list, collect your ticket and send you on your way. Once you got the hang of it, it seemed to work out OK and maybe you spend a total of five minutes getting to the department you needed.

But then the court closed again late last year because of a surge in Covid infections.

Upon the second reopening, almost two months ago, the court made some changes to how you get into the court. You still needed an appointment or a valid reason, but the triage employees and tents are gone, no more tickets, and in their place stands four kiosks armed with tablets and a clerk on the other side of the screen to assist you.

Three of the kiosks were designated for traffic and criminal matters, another for civil, probate, small claims and records. With a line of at least 25 people, unclear signage, and no court staff in sight, people were confused. The wait time to get a kiosk was reminiscent of trying to renew your driver’s license at the DMV during the Covid era, over an hour and at times close to two, which made plenty of individuals miss their appointments or worse, late for scheduled hearings.

As I stood in line I listened to the tablet clerk tell a lady over and over again that she could not bring a dog in a purse into the court, to the man who needed forms and didn’t know how to print them, to the person explaining for over 20 minutes they were there for Covid relief. One time, a homeless person came along and took the paper out of the printers.

After waiting for nearly 80 minutes, it was finally my turn with the tablet clerk. She asked why I was there, confirmed my appointment and printed a page for me to get into the court, even though I already had my appointment confirmation email.

I reached out to the “Ask a Question” link on the court’s website to ask what the plans were to remedy the craziness outside the court’s main entrance. The response I received was dismal at best: “For the time being, nothing is going to be done.” With Orange County Superior being among the busiest courts in California, I wonder if this the best they could come up with while they were closed to the public for over two months?

There has been some slightly better news lately. A court worker is now out front, answering questions and directing people to the appropriate kiosk. Anyone who has made an online appointment to visit the court does not have to wait in the long line for the outside kiosks before entering, but can simply show their appointment confirmation email.  With Governor Gavin Newsom’s plans to fully reopen California on June 15, will access to the courthouse go back to normal? I’m hopeful, but I won’t hold my breath.        

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