Biggest Fed Court District Largely Closes Due To COVID-19
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Law360 (August 7, 2020, 7:46 PM EDT) — The Central District of California, the most populous federal judicial district in the nation, announced that it is mostly closing its courthouses again to the public and that jury trials will continue to be postponed due to the surge of COVID-19 cases in the region.
The courthouses in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties reopened to the public on June 22 with some hearings taking place in person, but they’re now closed again with few exceptions, according to a Thursday order from Chief Judge Philip S. Gutierrez.
Although the courthouses reopened to the public in June, nonemergency civil hearings were held only through phone or video conferencing options, with the public and the media allowed to listen through a speaker in a separate courtroom by signing up to do so in advance.
“Due to the recent surge in the coronavirus cases in the Central District of California, until further notice, and except as set forth below, the courthouses will be closed to the public,” the judge said in the order, which he said was arrived to by a majority vote of the district’s judges.
The Central District has been using a three-phaseapproach to reopening the courthouses after they closed along with many other public buildings in March. Under Phase 1, only certain staff are allowed in the courthouses to help prepare for Phase 2, where the courthouses open limited in-court hearings for any criminal matter and emergency civil matters. Phase 3 will be the resumption of jury trials. Thursday’s order moved the district back to Phase 1 from Phase 2.
The exception to the Phase 1 restriction is criminal matters, which have been allowed to proceed in court since March when the defendant does not consent to appear by telephone or video conference. In those cases, the judge’s Thursday order allows up to 10 people in the courtroom or in an overflow courtroom at one time at the discretion of the assigned judge.
The Thursday order also said individual judges, at their discretion, may offer civil bench trials by video conference. Criminal bench trials remain suspended, and the order made no mention of a criminal bench trial by video conference being an option.
“The court concludes that conducting jury trials would also likely place prospective jurors, defendant, attorneys, and court personnel at unnecessary risk,” the order said. “Therefore, the court finds that suspending criminal jury trials in the Central District of California because of the increase in reported COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths serves the ends of justice and outweigh the interests of the public and the defendants in a speedy trial.”
The new order comes as access issues have been a focus at some California courthouses.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Unionhas allegedin federal court that the Kern County Superior Court is violating the First Amendment by placing undue restrictions on the public for accessing judicial proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
It should not be up to members of the press or the general public to demonstrate “good cause” for accessing civil and criminal proceedings conducted by the Kern County Superior Court, the ACLU said in the complaint.
The Los Angeles County Superior Court in June deployed a new court-developed remote appearance system for civil suits and other matters, available to attorneys and self-represented litigants to help fight the COVID-19 health crisis.
The LACourtConnect systemwill allow for more hearings to be conducted remotely and “dramatically change the traditional in-person courtroom appearance model,” according to the announcement.
–Additional reporting by Kevin Penton. Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.
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