Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer on Wednesday afternoon called on OC Superior Court to delay proceedings amid coronavirus concerns, a day after assuring attorneys and court staff that they could adequately be accommodated regarding their health concerns following a controversial order for attorneys and court staff to appear today for hearings.
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Spitzer’s remarks come after attorneys like alternate defender Steve Crandall were ordered, amid a 2-week closure, to report for hearings at courtroom C5, a felony court in the main Santa Ana courthouse.
Crandall described Thursday as a “public health disaster.”
That courtroom is presided by OC Superior Court Judge Kim Menninger, who attorneys said was not on the bench Thursday and that Judge Cheri Pham was filling in.
“The numbers of attorneys and defendants who were allowed into the courtroom were over 50 for most of the time,” he said.
“When I was on the record, I pointed out that my 63-year-old, immunocompromised client was being warehoused in the back with approximately 30 other individuals, all of whom were shackled, which I pointed out creates a peculiarly bad situation if any one of them coughs or sneezes because they can’t lift their hands up to their face to be able to block that from other people,” he added.
In a text message to a Voice of OC reporter Thursday morning, Spitzer wrote:
“I’m outraged by what I am personally observing. I’ve been in court all morning, there’s absolutely no social distancing and it’s completely unacceptable. The courts need to close immediately and they need to extend their emergency order beyond March 27th. That’s the exact reason these laws exist for states of emergency and they need to exercise and implement the discretion they have under state law.”
He didn’t respond to follow up Voice of OC requests for comment, but echoed those comments to the Orange County Register, saying “You can’t have it both ways…It is completely unacceptable to me what is happening.”
Yet a night earlier, on Wednesday – the day attorneys were sounding off on Facebook about the court’s reopening that they criticized as posing a significant public health risk amid county orders to limit public interactions – Spitzer in Facebook comments urged court staff and attorneys to remain calm, writing: “The DA and PD (Public Defender) have implemented measures to protect our employees and court staff.”
“He changed his tune,” said criminal defense attorney Staycie Sena, who was not in court today but was in constant contact with many attorneys who were, in a phone interview.
“His job as District Attorney is to help protect the public,” Seyna said, adding that after his remarks today, “I applaud him for now being on the right side of this issue.”
The courts were ordered closed for two weeks until at least March 30 by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye.
An email sent out Wednesday by Presiding Judge Kirk H. Nakamura and Court Executive Officer David Yamasaki said beginning Thursday, a few designated court facilities like the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana and Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange would reopen to handle “essential hearings,” and that some staff handling essential functions would continue to come it.
“I think everybody’s on the same page in terms of health concerns. It’s just a matter of how do you balance that with people that are in custody? You can’t just have them languish,” said federal defense lawyer Kate Corrigan, who’s been representing attorneys in meetings with court staff about how to proceed amid the coronavirus fears.
In response to the outcry, Corrigan said that court officials were meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss next steps for how to streamline procedures in accordance with health separation concerns.
Court officials said an announcement will be made later in the day.
“People are being heard,” Corrigan said. “And there’s discussion. We don’t just have one person making decisions.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @photherecord.