Salinas Courthouse

Monterey County Superior Court's criminal courthouse in Salinas.

California's highest ranking judicial officer ordered new rules for the state's court system that will see all current jury trials suspended and continued for 60 days, and gives local court systems greater leeway to adopt rules to address the impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

In her order, issued March 23, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye outlined the state emergency as declared by Gov. Gavin Newsom that resulted in his Executive Order N-33-20, requiring all Californians to stay home, with exceptions for "essential services." Courts were included in that essential service exception.

But, she wrote, that the Centers for Disease Control and the California Department of Public Health, as well as local county health departments, recommended stringent social distancing and encouraged people to avoid public spaces.

"Courts cannot comply with these health restrictions and continue to operate as they have in the past. Court proceedings require gatherings of court staff, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, and juries, well in excess of the numbers allowed for gathering under current and executive health orders," she wrote. "Many court facilities in California are ill-equipped to effectively allow the social distancing and other public health requirements required to protect people involved in court proceedings and prevent the further spread of Covid-19."

Even if courts could allow for proper social distancing, the statewide closure of schools means many court employees, litigants, witnesses and jurors can't leave their homes to attend court proceedings.

"These restrictions have also made it nearly impossible for courts to assemble juries," she wrote.

Her order is as follows: All jury trials are suspended and continued for 60 days from March 23, and courts can conduct such trials at an earlier date, upon finding of good cause or through the use of remote technology, when appropriate; the time period provided by the penal code for the holding of criminal and civil trials is extended 60 days from March 23, but courts may conduct such trials earlier under the aforementioned conditions; and all Superior Courts are authorized to adopt any proposed rules or amendments intended to address the impact of the pandemic to take effect immediately, without advance circulation for 45 days of public comment. 

Any court adopting any such rule change must provide a copy to the state Judicial Council, and post notice of the change prominently on the court's website, along with the effective date of the new or amended rule.

In Monterey County, Presiding Judge Julie Culver moved on March 17 to close the courts to the public, with only felony in-custody arraignments and juvenile in-custody proceedings being heard. A single trial that had started that week, that of physician and pain management specialist Steven Mangar, who is accused of running a pill mlll through his practice, was pushed out to June. 

It was unclear late on Monday what impact Cantil-Sakauye's order might have on the local system.

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