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State Cuts Bail, Allows Remote Court Hearings To Fight COVID-19

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. (Courtesy California Courts)
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The governing body for California’s courts approved a sweeping set of rule changes on Monday to help the legal system minimize the spread of COVID-19.

The California Judicial Council approved 11 changes that are mostly aimed at reducing human contact at courthouses and keeping more people out of jail -- addressing safety risks for plaintiffs, defendants, attorneys and court staff. They include:

  • Setting bail at zero dollars for most misdemeanors and non-violent felonies, so defendants whose trials may be delayed won’t have to sit in jail.

  • Extending the time frame for restraining orders and the statute of limitations for filing civil cases or bringing them to court.

  • Prioritizing the most urgent juvenile cases.

  • Allowing most appearances for preliminary hearings in criminal cases to be held remotely, through an attorney or via teleconference.

The Judicial Council also temporarily suspended all evictions and mortgage foreclosures in the state, except where "necessary to protect public health and safety."

The move on evictions may seem redundant, because a number of counties and cities (including Los Angeles) had already taken local action -- and Governor Newsom issued an eviction moratorium as part of a coronavirus executive order. But tenants remained vulnerable: as recently as last week, some sheriff’s departments in the state were going ahead with evictions in cases not directly related to COVID-19.

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“All of us are endeavoring to balance justice against this overwhelming contagion in order to minimize illness and death,” said State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who leads the Judicial Council.

“To say there is no playbook is a gross understatement of the situation,” she added.

Most of these changes will go into effect in the next week or so -- and they’ll remain active until two to three months after Newsom lifts the coronavirus state of emergency.

Long-term, the new temporary rules could prompt a reassessment of how courts operate under normal circumstances, said Katie Tinto, law professor and director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at UC Irvine School of Law.

“It may shed light on how to have our court system work more efficiently even in non-crisis times,” Tinto said.

Appearing in person for multiple hearings can be burdensome on defendants who have to weigh skipping work against missing a court date. Expanding the types of hearings where people can appear remotely, or through their lawyers, could address that hardship.

“We have poor people who miss work every day in order to appear,” Tinto said.

Cantil-Sakauye said there’s no precedent for keeping the legal system running during a pandemic. She emphasized the rule changes are temporary, saying, “we are trying to balance access to justice with a safe court environment.”

One more note:

The report prepared for the Judicial Council that laid out the procedural changes hinted at a major headache on the horizon: the huge backlog of low level felony, misdemeanor and civil cases waiting to be processed once courts are up and running at full capacity again.

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