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Suit Says L.A. Superior Court’s In-Person Hearings Are Dangerous

(Valerie Macon/Getty Images)
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Five pro bono legal organizations have filed a lawsuit against L.A. County Superior Court, arguing attorneys and clients are risking “their health and lives” to show up in court for non-urgent civil matters such as eviction proceedings and traffic citations.

In a complaint filed Tuesday, the legal aid firms ask that the courts pause in-person appearances for traffic and unlawful detainer matters “until doing so no longer poses a public health threat.”

Since the beginning of this year, three people who worked in the courts died after testing positive for COVID-19, including two interpreters and one traffic clerk.

Acknowledging that the court did defer some non-essential civil business for months, the lawsuit claims those matters “indefensibly proceed now in-person.”

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“As COVID-positive rates were rising, that is when courts started reopening these matters,” said Indira Cameron-Banks, directing attorney at the Skid Row-based Inner City Law Center.

“There are times where our attorneys will advocate for their clients not to have to show up, and the court will still order their clients to show up,” she said.

Diego Cartagena, president & CEO of lawsuit plaintiff Bet Tzedek, said the legal groups decided to proceed with court action after unsatisfactory responses to their concerns. Cartagena claims some clients are being called in for non-urgent matters.

“We’re talking about a citation over a cracked windshield,” he said. “Why does that need to be heard immediately and why does that have to be heard in person?”

Court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said all courtrooms have LACourtConnect or Webex options available for virtual appearances. In an emailed statement, she pointed out that the court has taken several measures to retrofit courtrooms since COVID-19, including a push to “dramatically accelerate and expand remote audio and video access capabilities in all 600 courtrooms.”

But Cartagena argues all of that technology doesn’t matter if it’s not applied uniformly. “We are still at the whim of certain courtrooms — certain bench officers — who decide, No, I’m going to require you to be in person, for matters that don’t need to be in-person,” he said.

Donlan said in an emailed statement that the court never comments on pending litigation, but added: “We anticipate that all matters brought by litigants each day across this County will be heard safely and fairly because of our commitment to equal access to justice.”

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