On Feb. 1, just a few hours before a jury in Dept. 5 of Monterey County Superior Court was to hear final arguments and begin deliberations on a case, Judge Rafael Vazquez announced the trial would be postponed for three weeks.
The reason: Someone who had been present for the entire trial received word that morning they had tested positive for Covid-19.
On Feb. 4, during a routine day of hearings in Dept. 3 of Monterey County Superior Court, Judge Pamela L. Butler and her entire staff were sent home to quarantine after a member of the staff tested positive for Covid-19.
Now two courtrooms at the Salinas courthouse are closed until those who are quarantining are allowed to return, but increasingly worried staff members are circulating a petition demanding the court administration do something to ensure a safer working environment.
Among the demands listed with the petition, a copy of which was forwarded to the Weekly: bringing in additional security and support staff to monitor and enforce social distancing requirements; encouraging people who don't have to be in the courthouse to use technology, including a public phone line, to listen to hearings; and the creation of a media campaign to educate the public on courthouse Covid-19 safety requirements and alternative viewing and listening options.
The petition reads: "As we continue to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic, we, the workers of the Superior Court of California, County of Monterey, are 100 percent committed to the SAFE and RESPONSIBLE continuity of justice. We believe 100 percent in our right to a safe and secure work environment.
"Unfortunately, the Court has FAILED to enforce safety and social distance requirements allowing for reckless, unnecessary and avoidable overcrowding. We demand better. Sign our petition and stand with us united. Enough is enough."
Also included is a list of demands: All courthouses and courtrooms must immediately comply with all federal, state, local and Cal/OSHA Covid-19 related safety requirements.
The employees also want "appropriate and responsible" courthouse access limited to people over the age of 18 unless they will be speaking with a judge regarding a case on the calendar that day; individuals with a case on the calendar that day; and one support person per individual with a case on the calendar that day.
Defenses attorneys in particular have been complaining about court conditions since last September. One group of attorneys sent a letter to state Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and county Presiding Judge Julie Culver noting that certain judges have repeatedly taken the bench without wearing masks. And while the court has placed plexiglass barriers throughout the courthouse—including where judges sit while presiding—the nine attorneys who signed the letter say the plexiglass “does not obviate the requirement to wear a mask.
“A judge who takes the bench without a mask is endangering the public,” the letter states. “The scientific evidence suggests that a single asymptomatic carrier of the coronavirus in a poorly ventilated room…can spread the virus throughout the room, regardless of any plexiglass barriers or six feet of separation.”
Defense attorney Phil Crawford, the lead signatory to that letter, says that aside from the issue of can, there’s an issue of should.
“We’re never going to create a situation that’s 100-percent safe, but I don’t think it sends a good message to have some judges decide they’re not going to wear masks, particularly when everyone else is required to do so,” Crawford says. “They’re the authority in the room and should be setting the tone and upholding the law.”
The two instances this week of Covid in the courthouse are not the first. During a jury trial in December, Judge Andrew Liu told jurors, just before a verdict was read, that one of the parties in the case had tested positive for Covid; while he wasn't required to tell them, he thought it was important to let them know so they could take action and get tested if they chose to do so.
And the local legal community was shocked in November by the death of Eugene Martinez, one of the county's first Latino prosecutors who became a highly sought-after defense attorney, who had Covid-19.
"It's been made clear to me that there's a heightened level of anxiety and concern at the Salinas courthouse and I understand it," says Court Administrative Office Chris Ruhl. "With the positive test on Monday and then (Thursday), people are anxious."
Ruhl says the security team and courthouse staff are doing increased monitoring of public hallways to enforce distancing and mask requirements for personnel and visitors.
"We're also actively exploring things we can do to reduce the congestion in the courthouse and minimize the risk of exposure," he says. "We are aware and sensitive to the needs and concerns and are exploring what else we can be doing."
It's a moving target, he admits, trying to balance keeping people safe and providing access to justice.
The trial that was taking place in Vazquez's courtroom will resume Feb. 22.