COVID-19, a virus that has killed more than 100,000 Californians, completely shifted how the state's courts were going to operate during uncertain times. Trials were delayed, lawsuits became an unguaranteed mission to accomplish, attorneys didn't know how they were going to best represent their clients. Of course, new processes were rolled out and it became a little blessing in disguise: to make legal proceedings more accessible to this day, the state's chief justice said last Thursday.
"The pandemic taught us ... we can really work from anywhere," Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero said at a Sacramento forum sponsored by the Public Policy Institute of California. The remote hearings 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 officials had to discuss and negotiate with the state Legislature on passing laws that would allow court proceedings to be held remotely for criminal cases until the end of 2024, and civil cases until the end of 2025. Now, thousands of remote hearings happen daily in California. Merrill Balassone, spokesperson for the state Judicial Council, said those hearings have allowed Californians to avoid 1.5 million trips to courthouses each year, according to a GovTech article.
Balassone mentioned how many surveys discovered that 96 percent of individuals who participate in remote court hearings mostly had positive experiences despite the reason they were attending court initially. Work didn't have to be missed, not taking long trips to court, stressed about finding a babysitter for the day or seeing alleged abuser in person were just a few of the many reasons why remote hearings were highly approved by civilians.
In a GovTech article, “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, according to a GovTech story.
In California, defense challenges have mostly been rejected due to pandemic reasons, causing postponements on individual trials.
The city of San Francisco is facing a suit still by taxpayers and the city's public defender for the delay of hundreds of criminal trials by making courtrooms hardly accessible to use.
For the past two years, according to the lawsuit, 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, mentioned in the GovTech article. The state appeals court handling the suit had ruled that judicial orders could be seeked by the plaintiffs in order to have available courtrooms to them and their trials; this later became a state Supreme Court issue, later ruled that this would apply to 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 focus to have "the courage and conviction of doing what's right" while "explaining our opinions in a way the public can understand."
Guerrero, the court's first Latina justice, was appointed by Newsom in March 2022 after nine years on the courts in San Diego, then was chosen by the governor to succeed Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who retired at the end of last year. Cantil-Sakauye now leads the Public Policy Institute of California and moderated Guerrero's talk last Thursday.