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State’s Top Jurist: Remote Court Hearings Improve Access

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, technology has helped the state’s judicial system broaden access for defendants and litigants, says California’s chief justice, Patricia Guerrero.

California Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero says the remote hearings that courts were forced to conduct during the pandemic turned out to be beneficial for many, even when they were no longer needed to protect their health.

COVID-19, which has killed more than 100,000 Californians, has also caused serious problems for the state’s courts, which have had to delay many trials and faced lawsuits for doing so. But it has also led the courts to find new ways to help people gain access to their legal proceedings, the state’s chief justice says.

“The pandemic taught us ... we can really work from anywhere,” Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero said last week at a Sacramento forum sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California. The remote hearings that the courts were forced to conduct after March 2020, she said, turned out to be beneficial for many participants, even when they were no longer needed to protect their health.

Guerrero said judicial leaders negotiated with the Legislature to enact laws that authorized the courts to hold proceedings remotely in criminal cases through the end of 2024, and in civil cases through the end of 2025. She said the state’s courts are holding 6,000 remote hearings every day, and those hearings have allowed Californians to avoid 1.5 million trips to courthouses each year, said Merrill Balassone, spokesperson for the state Judicial Council.

Balassone said surveys have found that 96 percent of the participants in remote court hearings gave them positive reviews. People said they no longer had to miss work, take long trips to court or disrupt their medical treatment. Domestic violence victims could avoid the stress of facing their alleged abusers in person, and youths were able to resolve juvenile delinquency cases more often than they had in the past, she said.

Guerrero said judges “learned during the pandemic about [the advantages of] remote access to technology, remote appearances, extending deadlines. ... The Judicial Branch leadership has weathered a very significant storm” while gaining “opportunities to enhance equal access to justice in California.”

It has also encountered a plethora of legal complaints from criminal defendants whose trials were delayed or who claimed they were denied their right to a fair or speedy trial. California courts have rejected most defense challenges to pandemic-related procedures — for example, masking witnesses and jurors and allowing witnesses to testify remotely. The courts have also upheld postponements of individual trials, citing a state law that allows judges to delay felony trials more than 60 days when there is a “good cause.”

But San Francisco’s courts are still facing a suit by taxpayers and the city’s public defender for delaying hundreds of criminal trials by allegedly refusing to make courtrooms available.

As of two years ago, according to the suit, more than 400 defendants had been waiting for trials for more than 60 days, and 178 defendants were being held in jail, some for more than a year. A state appeals court ruled in June that the taxpayers and Public Defender Mano Raju could seek judicial orders requiring San Francisco to provide more courtrooms for criminal trials, but the state Supreme Court, headed by Guerrero, set that ruling aside last month and agreed to decide the issue for all California courts.

The court’s rulings, though sometimes controversial, are “not based on popularity of the issues,” Guerrero told the audience. “We don’t put a finger in the air,” but aim to have “the courage and conviction of doing what’s right” while “explaining our opinions in a way the public can understand.”

© 2023 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.