Coronavirus: LA Courts Partially Reopen Friday For ‘Essential’ Functions

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) – The Los Angeles County Superior Court system partially reopened Friday for what were deemed “essential and emergency” functions amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile said that 36 of the 38 courthouses reopened Friday, but all civil and criminal jury and non-jury trials remained suspended. Jury duty was suspended as well.

The courts reopened despite the stay-at-home order issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday, coupled with L.A. County’s safer-at-home order which bans gatherings of 10 people or more.

Paramedics wearing facemasks work behind an ambulance at the Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, Calif., on March 19, 2020. (Getty Images)

Brazile on Tuesday had ordered all courts to close through Thursday. He also issued an emergency order which suspends all court business through April 16 with the exception of 31 “time-sensitive, essential functions.”

On Thursday, Brazile amended his initial order and suspended all traffic arraignments and traffic trials through April 16.

Essential functions include hearings regarding parole, bail review, arraignments, restraining orders, search warrants, grand jury indictments and probate guardianship.

Nearly 400 courtrooms will remain closed through April 16 as well.

“The Court is working with our Judicial Officers and employees on a court-wide operations plan designed to keep as many people out of our courthouses as possible to slow the spread of COVID-19, while prioritizing our time-sensitive, essential functions,” Presiding Judge Brazile said in a statement Thursday. “Although 36 of 38 courthouses in Los Angeles County will re-open tomorrow, our trial court operations will be downsized and scaled back substantially due to the closure of nearly 400 courtrooms starting Friday, March 20.”

The only two courthouses completely closed Friday were Beverly Hills and Catalina.

Meanwhile, in the Orange County Superior Court system Thursday, criminal cases were held at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana, prompting alarm from several top attorneys, a county supervisor and the head of the sheriff’s deputies union.

Numerous defense attorneys were told Wednesday evening that they and their clients had to appear at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana to have their cases rescheduled while the courthouses are closed in Santa Ana, Newport Beach, Orange, Fullerton and Westminster.

“When I walked in this morning, there were 50 to 100 people gathered in front of the courthouse, kind of a gauntlet,” defense attorney Ed Welbourn told City News Service. “It was in direct violation of the health order. Then we go inside and… there were at least 50 to 70 lawyers all standing in line (in a courtroom) trying to get cases called.”

Orange County Superior Court officials have assigned courtrooms in the Central Justice Center for cases that were previously being heard in the outlying criminal courthouses in Fullerton, Newport Beach and Westminster.

“All the lawyers felt forced to be there, didn’t want to be there and were very concerned about their health, their clients’ health and the health of their families,” Welbourn said. “I talked to a couple of clerks who were concerned and angered by the situation and didn’t have much guidance.”

A plan to hold arraignments via teleconferencing with live-streaming of the hearing for the public will help with social distancing efforts, attorney Katie Corrigan said. That plan may go into effect on Friday.

“There’s no perfect solution at this point,” Corrigan said. “The courts are trying to respond the best they can given the fluid situation going on.”

Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do criticized the move to summon so many attorneys to court.

“I don’t think that it was a wise decision,” Do told CNS. “It’s certainly not supported by the science we know about with COVID-19. It subjects a lot of people — the public, the attorneys, court personnel, the sheriff’s employees — to risk that we know that exists in an operation like this. It defies the health advisories from all levels of government.”

The courtrooms are too small to accomplish the recommendations for social distancing, Do said.

Meanwhile, federal courts in Los Angeles, Santa Ana and Riverside have delayed jury duty and criminal and civil trials until at least April 13.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)