Court proceedings resumed last week, after going dark for the Christmas and New Year’s break, but with the unmistakable new signs of the times.
The primary courtroom, located inside the Oak Street annex building where most proceedings are held, has been transformed into a plexiglass maze.
Freestanding clear dividers have been placed between seats in the jury box, as well as scattered throughout the spectator gallery, where a maximum of 20 to 22 visitors can be seated about six feet apart at any one time. More plexiglass partitions have been strategically placed to separate witnesses on the stand from the court reporter and those in the well, while others provide protection to the parties at dispute.
When the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March, court practices changed almost overnight to limit the spread of COVID-19 infection, while judges also strived to protect the Constitutional rights of the public.
For the past 10 months, Colusa County Superior Court Judges Jeffrey A. Thompson and Elizabeth Ufkes Olivera have overseen proceedings, while also enforcing the requirements that visitors, courtroom staff, and attorneys maintain a six foot distance from each other and wear facial coverings.
The court moved forward – and sometimes backward – depending on the level of coronavirus infection in the community.
In her very first emergency order on March 23, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, chair of the Judicial Council, acknowledged that many court facilities in California were ill-equipped to effectively allow the social distancing and other public health requirements required to protect people involved in court proceedings.
In addition to asking courts to implement strict guidelines that limited interaction and contact between people, Cantil-Sakauye suspended all trials for 60 days. On that date, there were 1,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in California and 30 known deaths.
Just seven days later, Cantil-Sakauye would issue a second emergency order, extending the statutory time requirement for a defendant to appear before a magistrate to be arraigned on charges, from 48 hours to seven days. She also extended time requirements for the court to hold preliminary hearings, from 10 days to 30, after COVID-19 cases climbed to 5,000 cases statewide and 100 were confirmed to have died.
“The continuous operation of our courts is essential for our constitutional form of government, for providing due process and protecting the public,” Cantil-Sakauye noted, in the order. “However, courts are clearly places with high risks during this pandemic because they require gatherings of judicial officers, court staff, litigants, attorneys, witnesses, defendants, law enforcement, and juries, well in excess of the numbers allowed for gathering under current executive and health orders.”
Since March, Colusa County Presiding Judge Thompson would issue several orders of his own, including the allowance of video technology, limiting courthouse operations, and restricting the number of visitors allowed inside the courtroom.
“Access to justice is an important right of each citizen,” Thompson noted, in an updated order on Dec. 30 to continue limited operations. The decision to limit functions within the court was made based on information provided by federal and state health officials and in an attempt to protect the public and staff from exposure to COVID-19.
As of Monday, at least two high profile trials have been postponed to February, although Thompson said setting dates even a month out could be an exercise in futility, given the rapid spread of the virus in Colusa County.
In addition to changes in the court schedule, which moves criminal court to Monday and Tuesdays, Thompson has encouraged the public to utilize the various options available to minimize the necessity of coming to the courthouse, including telephone, online and video options.
As of Monday, there were approximately 2.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, resulting in more than 27,000 deaths worldwide. In Colusa County, there have been 1,529 positive COVID-19 cases to date, resulting in nine deaths.
To view the most recent order, visit colusa.courts.ca.gov. ♣