SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic caused thousands of politicians, regulators and court employees to abruptly abandon the downtown core, small albeit definitive signs of life are emerging throughout California’s capital and its mass of government institutions.
Over a three-day stretch last week, masked lawmakers shuffled back to the state Capitol to introduce pandemic relief, while judges, clerks and bailiffs dusted off the locks at dilapidated Gordon D. Schaber Courthouse. After seven weeks of nearly total lockdown, both branches of government were eager to address a ballooning backlog of bills and lawsuits.
The two buildings are just blocks apart and inextricably linked, as it often falls upon Sacramento County Superior Court judges to take the first crack at the validity of fresh laws passed by lawmakers in the nation’s most populous state. The court also handles most elections matters and is often forced to check and balance executive actions taken by California governors.
Though only in a limited fashion, Sacramento has broken from other closed courts by officially ending its pandemic-induced “holiday” and resuming its function as one of California’s most critical trial courts.
“The ending of the ‘holiday’ period for civil filings at such time is a necessary step in the court’s phased approach to increasing civil operations which will result in remote hearings recommencing in civil writ/California Environmental Quality Act cases and complex civil cases starting May 26,” said Presiding Judge Russell Hom and Supervising Civil Judge Richard Sueyoshi in an email.
With the court still officially closed to the public, the judges have moved civil, criminal and attorney boxes to the lobby to allow runners and litigants to file during the pandemic. Bailiffs monitor the tight quarters to prevent overcrowding, only allowing a handful of people at a time to access the area.
The court is also placing filings in so-called “media bins” to give reporters the opportunity to browse for newsworthy items, such as an elections lawsuit filed recently by the California Republican Party.
To gain access to the pop-up filing stations, runners and reporters must first get their temperature taken by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and go through the normal security clearance procedures. Starting next week, court users attempting to enter will be required to wear face coverings.
“Due to the court’s expansion of court services, it is necessary to ensure that our employees, justice partners and the public are not entering a court facility with a high fever,” the court said in a statement.
According to the California Department of Public Health, as of Friday Sacramento had 1,181 positive Covid-19 cases, the 13th most of the state’s 58 counties.
On May 6 — the day of the court’s soft reopening — a small group of court runners and attorneys queued to access the temporary filing station thrown up in one of the court’s entryways.
The steady stream of runners and the hum of hundreds of documents hurriedly being date stamped and thrown in the drop boxes for docketing indicate the makeshift system has been an early success.
“We’ve been waiting for the green light for a couple weeks now,” said Gabe Ruiz, a runner with one of the many Sacramento litigation support services, after emptying two boxes of civil filings. “We can’t offer all the usual services, but at least we can drop off now. We’ll take it.”
Clerks aren’t readily available to offer filing instructions or fulfill public records requests like normal, yet the stopgap measures have at least allowed litigants to take solace knowing their documents are being received and processed by the court.
Sacramento’s decision to transform the lobby into a civil filing operation is simple on its face but miles ahead of actions taken by other major state courts.
For example, San Diego Superior Court has been dark since mid-March and it has acknowledged there are thousands of both paper and e-filings waiting to be processed. As a result, virtually all new civil matters received by San Diego — and neighboring Orange County — over the last eight weeks have not been made public.
When asked about the possibility of adopting a temporary setup like Sacramento’s to ease the mounting civil backlog, San Diego acknowledged it had nothing in the pipeline.
“The San Diego Superior Court does not plan to accept new civil filings through the end of the current closure order date of May 22, 2020. If that changes, we will let attorneys and the public know,” the court’s public information officer Emily Cox said in an email.
Mary-Beth Moylan, associate dean at University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, says any stopgap measures courts can take now to suppress their civil backlogs could prove valuable in the future as the judiciary figures to take a major loss in the upcoming 2020-21 state budget.
On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a scaled-back spending plan that called for sweeping cuts, including millions to the judiciary’s budget. Courts are suddenly having flashbacks to the Great Recession when the judiciary lost nearly $1 billion in funding.
“There will very likely be an avalanche of filing and that will be a challenge,” Moylan said. “Given the delays and backlogs that we’re going to already be seeing with the courts, it’s going to be particularly challenging if there is also not a sufficient budget to allow the courts to hire more people and purchase new systems.”
After an opening rush of filings, traffic inside the temporary filing station dropped considerably toward the end of last week. The court is slowly putting more civil clerks back to work and new cases are once again being processed, docketed and placed online.
The judges say they expected an initial burst and that the setup is intended to act as a sort of relief valve until civil hearings resume toward the end of the month. Because the court does not offer e-filing for civil unlimited jurisdiction matters, litigants must mail, fax or file in person at the court.
“The court has plans in place to process the high volume of filings. In accordance with the court’s phased approach to increasing civil operations, civil hearings will not recommence until May 26, 2020, to allow for civil filings to be processed and brought up to date,” the Sacramento judges said.