Claiming unsafe conditions related to the spread of the coronavirus, unions representing Los Angeles County public defenders, district attorneys and city attorneys called Wednesday for the immediate closure of the Los Angeles Superior Courts.
“The Superior Court has failed to adapt its operation and accommodate telephonic appearances and video conferencing during this time of crisis,” the unions said in a joint statement. “Conditions in these courthouses are not safe and put our members, their families and the public at risk.”
Separately, the First Amendment Coalition, joined by other advocates, argued for the public’s right to access court proceedings, sending a letter to California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye.
“Courts across California are halting proceedings, restricting access to buildings and holding some hearings telephonically, raising concerns that members of the public and the press, who are exempt from the state’s stay-at-home order, will face insurmountable barriers to access,” according to the letter by FAC and joined by several organizations, including the California News Publishers Association and multiple California chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Civil Liberties Union.
On Monday, Cantil-Sakauye suspended all jury trials in California’s superior courts for 60 days and allowed courts to immediately adopt new rules to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the same day, Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile signed an order restricting access to all Los Angeles County courthouses to judges, commissioners, court staff and authorized people until further notice, while also mandating social distancing of at least six feet. That order specified that news reporters and media representatives are among those considered authorized to access the court buildings.
The unions claim that mandate is not being enforced and members of the public are being allowed into courthouses.
Without accommodation for hearings by video conference or phone, close contact of less than six feet is required for attorneys, inmates and court personnel to do their jobs, according to the unions.
“The current courtroom conditions force public defenders to have close contact with people in custody who cannot social distance or take appropriate precautions. Our continued contact increases the risk of infection to other employees and to our families,” said Nikhil Ramnaney, president of Local 148, which represents public defenders. “We need LASC to work with us to resolve how we can discharge our Constitutional duties and ensure public safety.”
The unions also raised concerns about inmate exposure to the coronavirus.
“Furthermore, it is becoming clear that custody officials cannot maintain six feet social distancing between inmates during transportation and placement in holding areas awaiting court hearings,” according to the unions. “They also cannot ensure inmates can take the appropriate hygiene precautions to reduce the spread of the virus during transport and holding.”
During a midday briefing by county officials, Dr. Christina Ghaly, the director of medical care in the jails, said no inmate had yet tested positive for the coronavirus. However, the number of inmates warranting tests or quarantined within the jail while awaiting results for themselves or others was not disclosed.
The unions said LASC had offered a solution of consolidating matters into fewer courtrooms, which prosecutors and public defenders said would only force more defendants into closer contact.
Instead, hearings should be handled remotely through video and teleconferencing, the unions said, calling for a temporary halt to all operations while a resolution is worked out.
The letter from the First Amendment Coalition urged the chief justice to take three steps to ensure public access to hearings:
— conducting telephonic hearings on conference lines that allow for some public access;
— keeping hearings in courtrooms or via video open to the public and press; and
— maintaining public access to court records, even if clerks’ offices are closed to non-staffers.
“Reporters, who serve as the eyes and ears of the public, should not be blocked from access to courtrooms to observe proceedings, even as courts take reasonable measures to restrict access for health reasons,” the letter stated.