Calif. Fed. Courts Limit In-Person Hearings As Virus Rages
Law360 (December 9, 2020, 10:47 PM EST) –
California’s federal courthouses mostly closed their doors to the public Wednesday as COVID-19 cases skyrocket and the virus continues to ravage the Golden State.
All three federal court districts in the state issued updated pandemic mitigation protocols this week, with most going into effect Wednesday. The majority of in-person hearings have been canceled, with cases stayed or hearings shifted online or via phone, according to the courts.
Most of California is under a stay-at-home order, which the courts said contributed to the closures.
In the Central District of California, all courts have been closed to the public and all hearings have been canceled except for hearings on criminal duty matters. In civil cases, all hearings will be via phone or videoconference, District Court Executive Kiry K. Gray said in a statement Monday. Grand jury proceedings are suspended.
The measures are necessary to “ensure the continuous performance of essential functions and operations of the court in light of the [coronavirus] pandemic and the recent unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and test positivity rates in the Central District,” Gray said.
The changes took effect Wednesday and will last until at least Jan. 8, according to the statement.
Meanwhile, in the Southern District, Chief U.S. District Judge Larry Alan Burns issued an order Wednesday halting in-person court hearings until at least Jan. 8 as well. All jury and bench trials in both civil and criminal cases have been continued until Jan. 11, Judge Burns said, and grand jury proceedings have been suspended.
However, judges may still hold in-person proceedings if they deem them necessary, according to the order.
“Except for convening jury trials, individual district judges retain discretion, on a case by case basis, to schedule in-person criminal and civil proceedings … to ensure the fairness of the proceedings and preserve the rights of parties,” Judge Burns said.
The judge cited the “increased apprehension on the part of counsel, witnesses, parties, the public and court staff of being personally present in the courtroom,” as well as the “increased difficulty of summoning and empaneling the required number of trial and grand jurors.”
In California’s Northern District, all in-person court proceedings have been suspended until Jan. 3. The court cited recent state and local shelter-in-place orders in its brief notice. The closures took effect after the close of business Tuesday.
The closures join a growing list of courts across the country that are reinstating COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic worsens. Also on Wednesday, the chief judge of Miami-Dade County, Florida’s trial courts suspended all jury trials through at least the end of January.
And on Tuesday, the Northern District of Georgia suspended jury trials until Feb. 28.
The Southern District of New York shuttered its courthouses to the public on Dec. 1. Chief U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon said in the standing order that the move is “required to preserve public health and safety in light of the recent spike of coronavirus cases, both nationally and within the Southern District of New York.”
In November, New York state court officials postponed new jury trials and grand jury proceedings amid increasing coronavirus cases. Prospective jurors for new criminal or civil trials will not be summoned, while trials that are already underway are expected to proceed, for now, until they conclude, according to guidance circulated by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks.
One California judge has said he intends to keep using online video hearings after the pandemic, saying that it saves time and money, improves attorney quality of life, reduces polluting air travel and offers young lawyers an important learning tool.
“I think the default ought to be online proceedings,” Judge Donato said, noting that a “silver lining” to the coronavirus pandemic is that courts have successfully adopted online video technology that allows attorneys to participate in proceedings remotely instead of flying in from all over the world.
–Additional reporting by Carolina Bolado and Hannah Albarazi. Editing by Breda Lund.
Comments are closed