Courts throughout the country are trying to operate as effectively as they can in the massive wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. With little (if any) historical guidance, courts face the extraordinary challenge of attempting to balance public health and safety with constitutional rights.
The Judicial Council of California, which is the policy-making body for the state’s court system, recently reflected on this critical task:
The continuous operation of our courts to provide due process and protect the public is essential for our constitutional form of government; however, courts are clearly high-risk places during this pandemic because they require gatherings of judicial officers, court staff, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, defendants, law enforcement, and juries in numbers well in excess of what is allowed for gathering under current executive and health orders.
So how are courts responding? Do jury trials continue? What happens to a criminal defendant’s right to a speedy trial? Can individuals seek protective or restraining orders? What happens to housing cases, eviction actions, and foreclosures?
One of the most comprehensive responses to date was just taken by the California Judicial Council.
“No Need and No Right Will Be Overlooked”
In an emergency Judicial Council meeting, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye faced the challenge head on and vowed that: “No need and no right will be overlooked.” And, to that end, the Judicial Council of California took an immense step in adopting temporary—but sweeping—emergency rules to suspend court hearings, extend deadlines, and utilize available technology to conduct judicial proceedings. The changes brought by the emergency rules include:
- suspending entry of default judgments in unlawful detainer (eviction) actions
- suspending judicial foreclosure actions
- using technology for remote judicial hearings, remote depositions, and electronic filing of cases, documents, and evidence
- adopting a statewide emergency bail schedule that sets bail at $0 for most misdemeanors and lower-level felony offenses
- allowing defendants to appear through their attorneys and remotely for pretrial hearings
- prioritizing certain juvenile dependency (protection) and delinquency proceedings
- extending timeframes for certain temporary restraining or protective orders, and
- tolling (suspending) civil statutes of limitations (the time allowed for bringing a civil action).
These emergency rules are in addition to emergency orders already in place suspending jury trials, delaying deadlines for speedy trials, and extending filing deadlines.
Court Action Across the Country
Compared to other states, California’s emergency rules appear to go the furthest. But California is not alone in this effort. Courts across the country have implemented public health emergency response and operation plans. These plans generally outline critical and essential functions of the court and prioritize caseloads. Courts have also implemented judicial emergency powers based on statutory authority or their authority to administer justice.
Many state courts have suspended jury trials, grand juries, and in-person hearings. Other common responses include:
- utilizing technology for hearings and proceedings
- extending speedy trial deadlines
- granting filing deadline extensions, and
- restricting physical access to courthouses.
Lasting Impact on Courts and Citizens
The full extent of the pandemic on court operations has yet to be seen, but it undoubtedly will be significant—impacting not only day-to-day court operations but also individuals’ constitutional rights.
Suspension of jury trials affects criminal defendants’ right to a fair trial—a speedy trial to be held before an impartial jury. As pretrial deadlines get pushed back, some defendants remain in jail awaiting arraignments and bail hearings. Civil litigants also have a constitutional right to obtain justice—promptly and without delay. Families seek important answers in custody, immigration, housing, and other kinds of cases. Access to the courts is crucial to enforcing these rights.
If you have any type of court case, check your local or state court website for emergency orders relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Also check out Nolo’s special coverage to learn about your legal rights during the coronavirus outbreak.