All of Orange County’s courthouses will be closed Monday because of retrofitting to install equipment to enable more remote hearings by video and audio, officials said Friday.
It was not immediately clear when courtrooms would re-open, but officials said it would be in the “near future.”
Friday’s hearings in the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana were an improvement over Thursday because officials did more to reduce crowds in hallways and courtrooms, Orange County Public Defender Sharon Petrosino said.
The sheriff’s department brought inmates to the courthouse 50 at a time to reduce the number of defendants congregating in holding tanks and the five courtrooms being used in the Central Justice Center. The defendants were brought into court one at a time, Petrosino said.
“Today was a much better day than yesterday,” Petrosino told City News Service.
Petrosino said she and others involved in the proceedings met with Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura on Friday.
“We met today with the court and myself and the district attorney and talked to the court about the things that went wrong yesterday and went right today and we gave him some suggestions on the things that will make us more successful, and I think he will listen to us on those,” Petrosino said.
Court officials have a difficult task preserving the constitutional rights of defendants while complying with the state’s order on social distancing, Petrosino said.
Defense attorney Chris Jensen was called to court on Friday, but was philosophical about it.
“You’re walking a fine line between keeping people safe and preserving someone’s rights,” Jensen said. “It’s a difficult situation. It’s fluid, but it’s like every other industry that has to be ready for changes on the fly.”
Several attorneys complained Thursday there were large masses of people outside the courthouse in the morning and many more throughout the day in the halls and courtrooms.
“We literally put everything on calendar and that didn’t work,” Petrosino said. “There were lessons learned, and that’s good. We’ve never been in this situation before, so we’re all learning.”
The union that represents prosecutors and public defenders had their attorney send a stinging letter to Nakamura and Orange County Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger, the supervising judge of the felony panel in Santa Ana. Some attorneys grumbled about Menninger going on vacation to Florida on Friday.
The union’s attorney, Marianne Reinhold, noted in the letter that the governor speculated that within eight weeks up to 56% of all Californians may be infected with the virus.
“Unfortunately, on the same day of these announcements, the Orange County Superior Court elected to reopen courtrooms for pretrials, preliminary hearings, motions and trials on misdemeanors and felonies,” Reinhold wrote. “This action was taken even after the Supreme Court authorized the Superior Court in this county to be out of session through March 27.”
The attorneys recognize they have “a duty to their clients” and would continue to report for hearings, but at the same time they will “continue to put their lives and the lives of their family members at risk because of this decision,” Reinhold wrote.
Continuing to hold hearings is “irresponsible and dangerous,” Reinhold wrote. Union leaders said it was unfair they were locked out of the discussions.
The union representing court clerks also raised concerns about the proceedings.
“Earlier this week when court officials closed their doors to the public, workers felt somewhat more protected,” said Charles Barfield, general manager of the Orange County Employees Association. “But the abrupt decision to re-open several courtrooms yesterday and today turned that level of comfort into confusion, fear and frustration as workers were thrust without notice into public exposure and the COVID-19 risks that entailed.
“Safety of these essential front line workers must be the number one priority. OCEA has demanded greater protections for all public sector workers, including the court workers who were put at risk as the court shifted its winding down process without sufficient foresight or preparation to meet the safety needs of its employees. We hope other public employers will be more cautious as we make our way through this crisis.”