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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

San Diego Superior Court Holds Video Hearing Per COVID-19 Procedures

 April 9, 2020 at 11:22 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 Essential to our judicial system is the principle that justice delayed is justice denied. But what happens when the courthouse is shut down by a global pandemic? That unique challenge is being met this week in San Diego superior court, which faces a backlog of cases. Joining me to discuss the creative new arrangement. It's judge Lorraina oxone who is presiding judge of San Diego superior court. Judge, welcome to midday edition. Speaker 2: 00:27 Thank you for having me. Speaker 1: 00:28 Well first, how long have San Diego courtrooms been shut down and can you give us a sense of the size of the backlog of cases? Speaker 2: 00:35 So we have been shut down since March 17th. We asked the chief justice to shut us down until April 3rd April 3rd she gave us that permission. I issued a general order, uh, the week of April 3rd I needed to ask the chief for additional closure authority as the pandemic is only increasing in San Diego rather than flattening. So we are now closed until April 30th. In that first three weeks that we, we closed, we missed over 20,000 different hearings that will need to be rescheduled. And now with an additional three weeks of closure, it makes sense. It's probably going to be about double about 40,000 different matters that need to be re calendared. Speaker 1: 01:16 Well it sounds like a huge number. I mean it's going to take a long time to get through everything. Speaker 2: 01:22 It is going to take an enormous amount of time to get through everything. And, and even when we do reopen, my guess is the social distance he orders will still be in place. So I can't bring back as many people as I'd like, only to get, only have a couple people going up and down in the elevators. I don't know. I don't know how we, we can sit seat jurors in a courtroom. We don't have six feet apart for jurors. So there's a, a long road ahead of us Speaker 1: 01:48 in this quasi virtual court hearing that we're about to discuss. How is that okayed following the state shutdown order due to the pandemic? Speaker 2: 01:57 Well th the chief justice has urged all the courts up and down the state to get creative, uh, cheat to try to use remote appearances to, uh, reduce the number of folks that are in custody that would normally get out, uh, to, uh, in, to use a different bail schedule so that misdemeanors are not held pretrial to authorize the Sheriff's office to release people that are within 30 days of their, um, their sentence being completed. And so we have, uh, added all those things to our toolbox to assist in reducing the jail population. Working very closely with sheriff Gore, district attorney, summer, Stephan public defender, Randy mys and the criminal defense bar. So those things we started doing in the last couple of weeks, the remote video is abs. It took us a while to ramp it up with sheriff Gore's help, uh, in his it department, the district attorney's it department, the public defenders, it department and the San Diego superior courts, it department, they have collaborated in a way that is unique I think up and down the state of California and uh, have, uh, installed remote video capabilities in all of the seven different detention facilities in San Diego County. Speaker 2: 03:13 And on Monday I presided over the first remote appearance where the lawyers all called in, both the public defender and the district attorney called in and the defendant was on the television screen as well, giving his or her consent to having this hearing done remotely. Speaker 1: 03:30 Just a little more on the nuts and bolts about how this works. You explained the defendant, the prosecutor, defense attorney are all remote there. They're being videoed in. What about the witnesses? The judge, the clerk, the court reporter or other courtroom workers? Speaker 2: 03:43 So the court is in session, uh, with the court reporter and the clerk and the judge. And, uh, there we have a deputy in the courtroom, but there's really no need. There's no, there's no public in the courtroom and there's no defendants in the courtroom. The witnesses, uh, we haven't had a preliminary hearing yet where you would have a witness moving, just taking a change of please. We've been taking what we call a time waiver where someone has a statutory right to have a hearing on a certain day and they waived that right by giving up the statutory time and, and agree to come back, uh, either remaining custody while they're a waiting time or aren't there. We're letting them out on their own with cognizant and we're ordering them back on a date in July. Uh, so we've only been doing those starting, uh, and so today we're testing it in Vista. Speaker 2: 04:31 Tomorrow we're testing it in South Bay and Monday we're testing these kind of triage, what I'm calling triage hearings to try to call through the cases that the district attorney, the public defender in the criminal defense bar have that are easily handled in this manner. And then starting on Tuesday, we're going to be, do be doing preliminary hearings by remote video, which we often never done before. And the witness will be up OB a kind of a, a scale down preliminary hearing where the prosecution is allowed to uh, call the professional law enforcement witness to show that there's probable cause whether there is or there isn't the professional witness can do the testimony. So we don't anticipate that any lay witnesses or victims or alleged victims would come into the courthouse. Instead. The professional witnesses will appear remotely just as the lawyers and the defendant will appear. Speaker 1: 05:24 Do you expect to do actual trials this way? Speaker 2: 05:27 I do not expect to do actual trials this way, uh, because I, I, I can't imagine that I can bring jurors into the courthouse anytime soon. It's a new time for trial courts as it relates to civil and family. I know you asked about that. They have, and it particularly in civil, they have statutory times that they need to file motions, statute of limitations, requirements to, to file certain pleadings. And those all have been, uh, told to use a legal term because we're technically closed. It's like every day is a Sunday for civil and for family. And so the bills won't start adding up until we reopen for those. And in fact that chief justice has issued a new rules of court that has given even additional extensions to allow for 30 or 90 days depending on what the issue is, to allow, uh, for them to file those certain pleadings so that we don't get a rush to the courthouse on the day we first opened. Speaker 1: 06:24 Now it seems like a remarkable task to get all the lawyers to sign off on this. You're getting waivers signed by defendants to go through this process and all. Um, do you think that at some point you may face some appeals based on this or you know, maybe the defendant's right to face and accuser might be grounds, for example? Speaker 2: 06:43 Uh, well I think if we tried to hold a remote trial, I think you, yes. And I don't think anybody wants to do that. We're not trying to take away anybody's right under the constitution to face an accuser. What we're trying to do with this triage court is to get some people that would ordinarily plead guilty or that had deals. Uh, when we closed the courthouse, there were some people that had deals ready to go, but then they had no place to actually put them in front of the judge. So we're not trying to take away anybody's rights. We're trying to actually assist the defendants in the cases that that can be resolved during the period of court shutdown. Speaker 1: 07:18 How's it really going? Any complaints or things you have to tweak a little bit? Speaker 2: 07:23 You know, everyone's wearing a mask. So you make, you need to make sure that you identify who everybody is. You can't assume that you have the right person in front of you. And where when we're in regular court, I know the lawyers, uh, and so I need to make sure that I'm, you know, talking to the right lawyer at the right time, uh, making sure it's the right defendant, making sure that, uh, they can hear us. There's, there's mute buttons that when the, uh, when we're not in session, we view, we want to meet, make sure we unmute them out. There's a way for the defendant to have a private conference with their attorney while in custody that the sheriff has provided a telephone for each of these, these, uh, video remote rooms. And so we need to make sure that when they are talking to their attorney that we need all the buttons. And so we're just going through the, the, the steps now we're writing up protocols so that when we do this next week, uh, with preliminary hearings and we, we'd start doing more of these hearings that we're all on the same page. Speaker 1: 08:25 Well, I've been speaking with judge Lorna [inaudible] presiding judge at the San Diego superior court. Good luck to you and thanks very much for talking with us. Speaker 2: 08:32 Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

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San Diego courts remain closed to the public through at least April 30, but Monday marked the first of several planned remote matters for defendants who remain in custody.
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