In a late Monday announcement, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye issues a statewide order to suspend all jury trials for 60 days due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Two months of no jury trials
The suspension, which had already been put in place in many county Superior Courts, was issued by Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye as a further effort to stop the spread of the virus.
“The World Health Organization, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of California have recognized that the world, country, and state face a life-threatening pandemic caused by the COVID-19 virus,” said Cantil-Sakauye in her order. “Courts cannot comply with these health restrictions and continue to operate as they have in the past.”
“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. These restrictions have also made it nearly impossible for courts to assemble juries.”
While some have questioned these orders due to the large docket of cases that most jurisdictions currently have, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye has the authority to give such a statewide order due to her position in the state Supreme Court, as well as her position as the Chair of the Judicial Council of California.
Many courts had planned to reopen jury trials in early April, but as of Monday, the only jury trials being allowed are those that local judges deem to have shown “good cause” such as impeding case dismissal and remote technology “when appropriate.” Trials themselves will also be limited under the ruling, as only “emergency and essential” cases will be held in some capacity albeit with pleas, arraignments, and other trial proceedings also being delayed due to timing issues.
“Trials are not going to be held without a jury,” explained Orange County lawyer David Kuhn. “That was a worry of some, but that’s very unconstitutional. A lot is still unclear, but generally trials are going to be held back a few months besides some exceptions. And even then social distancing and sanitization measures will be put into place. It’s not going to be until late May when things start getting closer to normal.”
The delays also mean issues for many others.
“Anyone who couldn’t afford bail is now given a virtual two month sentence,” explained prisoner advocate Luther Croix. “There are some exceptions we heard about, like those who had less than 60 days bail being released early and [coronavirus] risk and things like that, but honestly, for most people awaiting trial with no bail, they be (sic) in jail.”
Courts did address that factor, with bail hearings being given top priority in many places to have as few as possible people being held and to avoid a large jail-wide mini outbreak.
In many counties, essential court services are to continue to prevent a larger backup. In Los Angeles County, District Attorney Jackie Lacey still plans to try cases that the judge deems ‘absolutely necessary.
“Social distancing has not been perfect, but it’s not in the outside world either,” said Lacey in a Los Angeles Times interview. “This is where I think all of us could do a lot more to enforce social distancing and shelter in place, but let essential services continue to take place.”
Normal jury trials are expected to resume statewide by May 24th pending any further Supreme Court order. Federal Courts are not covered under the state ruling and may resume as early as April 3rd.