California’s freeze on jury trials is ending, but only a few counties, like Contra Costa, are planning to summon prospective jurors while keeping them separated and masked.
The statewide 60-day freeze on jury trials ends next week, but only a few California counties are taking immediate steps to summon prospective jurors, while keeping them six feet apart in court.
Here in the Bay Area, Contra Costa County is acting promptly, despite some debate on procedure. The presiding judge says he would prefer to cut the jury size in half during the coronavirus pandemic, but couldn’t get defense lawyers to go along.
By reducing felony juries from 12 to six members, “you would halve the number of people who get exposed, and the amount of time” needed for jury selection, Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin said in an interview Friday. But without consent from lawyers whose clients have a right to be tried under current rules, he said, the court would need state legislation to make any changes.
Meanwhile, Baskin’s court in Martinez, and other county courts in Pittsburg and Richmond, will begin calling in prospective jurors on Tuesday, and will also resume trials that were suspended by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s order in March. Potential jurors who are over 60, or medically vulnerable to the virus, will be excused from service, but not court personnel, including the 67-year-old judge. “We’re essential personnel, on the same front lines as hospital workers and grocery workers,” he said.
Baskin, court employees and anyone entering the courtroom will be required to wear masks. But witnesses will testify unmasked, behind plexiglass, also at the insistence of defense lawyers, who cited their clients’ constitutional right to confront witnesses, the judge said.
While courthouse doors will reopen to prospective jurors and trial participants, public access will remain limited in other ways. Contra Costa County, and other counties planning to resume trials, will keep their clerks’ offices closed and leave drop-boxes open for new legal filings.
“This is a soft reopening,” court officials in Orange County said in one such announcement Friday.
The gradual reopening of courts is in keeping with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s schedule for easing statewide shelter-in-place restrictions in counties that show they are taking steps to keep the coronavirus under control.
In San Francisco, which has kept 19 of its courtrooms open for limited activities, courts are planning to start some regular sessions on June 1 and will resume calling prospective jurors, said court spokesman Ken Garcia.
Courts in Santa Clara and Monterey counties also announced plans to start jury trials June 1.
Alameda County courts are moving more slowly. Officials said the courthouses will remain closed to the public but some proceedings will resume in Oakland and Hayward on June 1, including non-jury trials in small claims court and hearings in such time-sensitive matters as domestic violence, elder abuse and disputes over wills. The hearings will be conducted remotely.
Los Angeles County plans to resume jury trials on June 22.
Baskin said jury selection in Contra Costa County will take longer under the new rules. Prospective jurors are typically brought to court in groups of 60 to 80 and winnowed down to 12 in two to three days. With social distancing, he said, no more than 20 at a time will be allowed in court, and jury selection will take six to nine days.
The judge said he and his colleagues decided on an earlier reopening due to legal concerns, such as a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, and some scheduling worries.
“A huge backlog of cases is building,” Baskin said. “If we don’t get going, there’s going to be a tsunami that will wipe us all out.”