Scores of criminal defense attorneys, public defenders and court workers are up in arms after they say they received notifications to appear for hearings in Orange County Superior Court today, amid a higher court order to close courthouses for two weeks and recent emergency health orders from the county to limit public interaction due to novel coronavirus concerns.
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The main courthouse in Santa Ana will reopen today to handle three days’ worth of criminal cases, apparently at the request of OC Superior Court Judge Kimberly Menninger, according to attorneys who spoke to Voice of OC on Wednesday.
Menninger is the supervising judge for the court’s central felony panel.
Attorneys are criticizing the move, calling it a public health risk – with attorneys, clients and court staff all slated to appear in one courtroom – amid orders by the county and health authorities to limit human contact in public settings to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The outcry comes on the heels of a recent emergency order by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye to close all OC court facilities until at least March 30.
“I’m immunocompromised, and I’ve got somebody going into a queue for me, at the last minute, and my client’s in custody, but many people have clients who are out of custody,” said Lisa Kopelman, a private practice criminal defense attorney who said now those attorneys have to try and reach those clients to come into court.
“We all got notice that the court was closed for two weeks,” Kopelman said. “Now we got word that they’re going to be handling basically three days’ worth of cases tomorrow.”
Asked over the phone Wednesday about Menninger’s request and why the court was reopening amid the health concerns, court spokesman Kostas Kalaitzidis only responded: “The court is working very hard to make sure that very acute needs of the community are met. We’re working very hard to make sure that hearings for restraining orders and arraignments and other such items can take place.”
“Beginning tomorrow, a few designated courtrooms” like the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana and Lamoreaux Justice Center in Orange “will reopen to handle essential hearings, with limited public access permitted into CJC and LJC,” reads an email sent out Wednesday by Presiding Judge Kirk H. Nakamura and Court Executive Officer David Yamasaki.
“We are sailing in uncharted waters, trying to deal with the anxiety of not knowing what tomorrow will bring,” the email reads, adding that some staff needed for “essential functions” will still be required to come in to work. “For those who are released to go home, please do not continue to work unless instructed by your manager.”
If defendants don’t appear today, they could risk a warrant issued for their arrest; meanwhile, attorneys could risk their bar cards, said Staycie Sena, a criminal defense lawyer.
“And a good majority of those attorneys are over 65,” Sena added, referring to the fact that people 65 years old and older are seen as more vulnerable to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “So they’re forcing us to choose between our bar card and, you know, risking our lives and the lives of our loved ones.”
Sena took to Facebook to alert other attorneys of the developments, prompting an online back-and-forth between some people and OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer in the comments section of her post.
“Private bar can call in with 977 authority,” read part of one of Spitzer’s comments. Penal Code 977 is a California statute allowing defendants to “waive” their presence in court and have attorneys appear on their behalf for most misdemeanor proceedings. “The DA and PD (Public Defender) have implemented measures to protect our employees and court staff.”
“Read (Penal Code) section 977,” he again commented later.
Eventually, Spitzer responded to a sum of people commenting at him under the post:
“Hey all. This is really complicated. There are different rules for misdemeanors and felonies, whether there was 977 authority, what time waivers were taken. We are working our way through two days of court closures tomorrow. If an attorney does not want to appear they should inform the court in the am and we can figure out where to go from there. Please. Deep breaths.”
Criminal defense attorney Diane Bass said that the courtroom the cases are scheduled for, C5, is a “big courtroom.”
“All the seats are full or most of the seats are full. There are a bunch of interpreters. The inmates are in the tank on the side, to the side of the judge. And the lawyers line up along one side of the courtroom, and one at a time walk up to the lectern and have their case called,” she added.
On a “good normal day, like any Monday, you have 20 lawyers standing in line, every time the judge takes the bench, right next to each other,” she added. “I mean, how is that social distancing?”
Bass continued: “I mean, we’re all recommending that everybody just stand six feet apart; let the bailiff call us in one at a time. Which would be the most prudent thing to do.
But if it’s anything like the grocery store, it’s just going to be a mess.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.