This story has been updated.
Orange County Superior Court officials closed down one courtroom and limited hearings in others that were reopened for a second day, though it’s unclear what the courts’ long term plans are for operations during a coronavirus public health crisis and state orders to stay at home.
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After interrupting a 2-week closure for hearings on Thursday and Friday, court officials said they won’t open back up for hearings next week in a Friday statement. It’s still unclear what will happen when the closure period ordered by a higher judge ends on Friday, March 27.
Effective Monday next week, the court “will be closed to the public, including attorneys, until further notice,” the court statement reads. “The Court anticipates reopening in the near future for limited matters.”
The updated plans come after a judge ordered attorneys to report for hearings on Thursday — during a 2-week court closure ordered by a higher judge — at the main courthouse in Santa Ana, where attorneys described a “public health disaster” of people packed together inside wearing masks while defendants in custody were shackled standing together.
Other courtrooms like CJ1, which sits inside the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana, were opened as well.
A large volume of the attorneys ordered to come in were for criminal hearings at the C5 courtroom, which is presided by Superior Court Judge Kim Menninger. Attorneys said Menninger wasn’t on the bench and that Judge Cheri Pham was there instead.
The scene prompted OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer to denounce the courts’ move after witnessing “absolutely no social distancing” at the courthouse both in texts to Voice of OC and statements to the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Times.
That was after he reassured court staff and attorneys on Facebook the day before that measures were in place at the courthouse to protect their health.
He didn’t return phone messages seeking comment for this story.
OC Public Defender Sharon Petrosino also criticized the court’s move to the Times, calling it a “catastrophe.”
Today court officials closed the men’s jail courtroom while the other courtrooms at the main courthouse, as well as courthouses in Newport Beach, Fullerton and Westminster, reopened today.
Court officials also limited the types of hearings today to “preliminary hearings in which the defendant has not waived the right to a preliminary hearing within 10 court days or 60 calendar days” and “emergency motions for relief,” according to an update posted on the court’s website today.
But it’s unclear what the court’s day-to-day operations will look like after the two-week closure period ends on Friday, March 27. The closure was ordered by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye.
“It is very premature to be talking about what’s going to happen after the 27th,” said court spokesman Kostas Kalaitzidis in a phone interview on Friday.
“We do not know where this thing is going,” he added. “We have no control over how this whole pandemic is moving.”
Attorneys can still request to place emergency motions on the calendar and to appear at hearings via video conference.
“The Court continues to encourage the use of 977 authority,” reads the update. Penal Code 977 authorizes attorneys to appear on behalf of their clients, a statute that typically applies to misdemeanor cases.
The hearings today come after Gov. Gavin Newsom late Thursday told all Californians to stay home for the time being, ordering residents to restrict their movement to basics such as gas, groceries, walks and exercise in hopes of stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.