Questioning potential jurors at county fairgrounds or concert venues, fewer lawyers, and more hand sanitizer for security staff are among suggestions California courts may consider as the state reopens 58 trial courts closed for months due to the coronavirus outbreak.
A 75-page guide released on Wednesday by a California Judicial Council working group is aimed at helping trial courts operate safely in the early stages of a return to work with the state easing stay-at-home orders and gradually reopening businesses.
The guide answers 200 questions about safely operating in the Covid-19 world, and follows efforts by courts nationally to restart proceedings with social distancing and protective measures in place.
The New York State Court System has started a return to in-person operations and an increasing number of federal courts are preparing for more of them, as well. About 50 U.S. appeals and district courts have issued orders requiring masks, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in March ordered courts to suspend jury trials for 90 days. That ushered in virtual hearings for civil cases as the number of Covid-19 cases and shelter-in-place orders increased.
Going forward, courts must manage the flow of people and maintain social distancing of six feet from pre-security screening through the jury room. “Narrow entries and lack of exterior covered areas create difficulties at high-traffic times, like jury assembly,” the document said.
Suggested modifications include establishing priority lanes with a temporary shelter to accommodate seniors and people with disabilities; continuously running heating, ventilation, and air conditioning during work hours; placing sanitizer in areas that allow staff to use it after handling each bag or other items; limiting to four the number of counsel in the well; and encouraging use of on-call and telephone standby procedures.
Courts and counsel may choose to conduct jury selection in school theaters and gymnasiums, county fairgrounds, or concert and theater venues. Another option is tailoring jury panel sizes to the limits of the specific courtroom, overflow area, or alternative trial location. Courts also could schedule pools for specific times to reduce pressure on jury assembly and allow faster recovery time in the courtroom.
Courtrooms also could be used for jury deliberations with sufficient spacing between jurors. The number of in-court observers could be limited to give jurors more space. In potentially sensitive areas, such as the space between clerks and the judge, additional physical barriers may be necessary, the guide said.
Individual courts must determine who can continue to work remotely and whether to supply masks, gloves, and other protective gear. They also must determine, working with union representatives and federal and state guidance, the best way to furnish a place of employment that is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm” as stated in federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration regulations.
That could include limiting gatherings in common areas, such as restrooms, and installing plexiglass guards in high-traffic areas where social distancing isn’t possible or is impractical, the guide said.
Courts must uphold access to justice, liberty and due process while balancing safety and health, the document said. They also must closely monitor public health directives and comply with applicable health and safety laws.
The resource guide can be used to assist with managing court operations outside Covid-19 in the event of another pandemic or emergency situation, the document said.
—With Madison Alder