Justice delayed: California courts cancel, postpone hearings

Alameda County courthouse.

California courts are delaying trials and even temporarily closing their doors in hopes of preventing the spread of the new coronavirus, moves intended to balance public safety with due process that could leave some cases in limbo for weeks.

Contra Costa and Sonoma counties are closing most of their courts for two weeks. Santa Clara County Superior Court suspended all non-essential functions for at least three weeks.

San Francisco is postponing jury trials in most civil cases for 90 days, while Alameda County has ordered an eight-week delay in civil trials and some criminal trials. The California Supreme Court will conduct its hearings remotely, by phone or video, and the U.S. Supreme Court has postponed its hearings for two weeks, its first such action in 102 years.

On Tuesday, a judge in Alameda County rushed the sanity phase hearing of BART stabbing defendant John Lee Cowell, declaring him sane when he killed Nia Wilson in 2018. The judge said that four of the jurors were older than 65 and he wanted to speed up the hearing, despite the public defender objecting. 

In Los Angeles, a judge postponed the murder trial of multimillionaire New York real estate heir Robert Durst until April 6. Superior Court in Los Angeles is delaying certain trials, and on Monday announced it would shut down through Thursday “in response to the substantial need to control and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

The court will reopen Friday for handling essential or emergency matters.

“As the largest trial court in the nation, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County is methodically scaling back non-essential court operations as part of a phased approach,” Presiding Judge Brazile said in an earlier statement on the court’s website.

The situation across the state is evolving daily, and the effects of the changes are just starting to be assessed.

What does it mean for clients so far?

“The wisest clients are embracing compromise,” said Eric M. George, partner at law firm Browne George Ross in Los Angeles. “Clients who expect to be untouched by the epidemic need to face reality. The hit on the most immediately impacted industries — including entertainment, hospitality, and travel — will quickly be felt by those downstream in real estate, banking, tech, manufacturing and the like.”

“Clients shouldn’t be fooled by lawyers offering unambiguous predictions about how courts will respond,” George added. “There are no easy answers, and the transactional costs of litigation will be substantial.”

Part of the challenge for law firms is that the changes vary from place to place, indeed, around the country. In California, the authority to adjust or suspend court operations rests with local court leaders.

“All courts are working to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic and adjust to the quickly changing situation,” California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement on the court’s website. “Each court has different challenges and is working with local stakeholders to craft the best protections.”

On Monday, the chief justice issued guidance to California trial courts seeking emergency orders to adjust or suspend court operations in light of the pandemic.

The law allows local courts to request extended temporary restraining orders, to hold sessions elsewhere in the county and to extend the time for a criminal trial to be held.

“California’s judicial branch is facing an unprecedented challenge with the COVID-19 virus,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “I recognize that this situation may require the temporary adjustment or suspension of court operations” that could interfere with court proceedings.

Ronald Turovsky, a partner with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, was monitoring shifting court rules around the country.

In some cases, a postponement might not be significant. But depending on the length of delay, the right to a prompt trial could come up in some criminal cases. There will be a potential for backlogs, and courts will be looking to prioritize cases.

“You just deal with what you have,” Turovsky said.

The Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles routinely fights tenant evictions, and thousands are sought by landlords every year.

When a legal proceeding is delayed, the tenant is allowed to remain in the residence, executive Director Silvia Argueta said.

“We hope the landlord will honor that,” she said.


Associated Press writer Andrew Dalton and KTVU contributed.