SANTA ANA (CNS) - Several top attorneys, a county supervisor and the head of the sheriff's deputies union today expressed alarm about criminal cases being held at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana despite an order from the county's chief health officer discouraging assemblies of large gatherings of people during the coronavirus outbreak.
Numerous defense attorneys were told Wednesday evening that they and their clients had to appear at the Central Justice Center in Santa Ana to have their cases rescheduled while the courthouses are closed in Santa Ana, Newport Beach, Orange, Fullerton and Westminster.
“When I walked in this morning, there were 50 to 100 people gathered in front of the courthouse, kind of a gauntlet,” defense attorney Ed Welbourn told City News Service. “It was in direct violation of the health order. Then we go inside and... there were at least 50 to 70 lawyers all standing in line (in a courtroom) trying to get cases called.”
Orange County Superior Court officials have assigned courtrooms in the Central Justice Center for cases that were previously being heard in the outlying criminal courthouses in Fullerton, Newport Beach and Westminster.
“All the lawyers felt forced to be there, didn't want to be there and were very concerned about their health, their clients' health and the health of their families,” Welbourn said. “I talked to a couple of clerks who were concerned and angered by the situation and didn't have much guidance.”
Attorney Joel Garson said there “were surprisingly a lot of lawyers here.” He said it was like “business as usual” and compared it to one of the busiest courtrooms where a judge handles arraignments and assigns cases to trial courtrooms.
“There's long lines of lawyers, probably 15 deep, and the rest of the courts are trying to get through the calendars, and it looks like they forgot to transport some (inmates) from the outlying courts, so they're unable to do anything with them,” Garson said. “But they don't seem to be issuing warrants for clients who are not here.”
One attorney wore a gas mask, apparently as a joke and not for health reasons.
Attorney Jack Earley said all of his other cases in courts outside of Orange County have just rescheduled them without an appearance. Some of the older attorneys are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19, he noted.
“Every (prosecutor) I've called said, `I'm having someone appear for me. I'm not going to be there,” Earley said. “What happens if I have a client who has a severe case of coronavirus and I have to tell him to come to court? The fear is that there is nothing that can be done. They're basically saying you have to be there.”
Earley added, “It was not well thought out. I thought other counties thought it out and had solutions.”
Attorney John Barnett said he understood the need to call the cases.
“The court system has a complex calculus,” he said. “They're trying to consider the rights of the individuals versus health. Everyone, I'm sure, in the system is in good faith seeking the best solution, but they're not apparent because we don't have good previous models, so I think we have to understand the difficulties.
“I'm not going to criticize the decisions being made now because of the difficult calculus.”
Attorney Kate Corrigan agreed with Barnett.
“I think there were a lot of complaints today, which is normal,” Corrigan said. “The courts are basically trying to be responsive to the needs of the constitutional rights and balancing that against public health concerns.”
A plan to hold arraignments via teleconferencing with live-streaming of the hearing for the public will help with social distancing efforts, Corrigan said. That plan may go into effect on Friday.
“There's no perfect solution at this point,” she said. “The courts are trying to respond the best they can given the fluid situation going on.”
Orange County CEO Frank Kim said he was concerned about the court hearings in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I am concerned about the potential exposure of inmates in the Orange County jail system because our ability to quarantine those individuals and isolate them are reduced in custody,” Kim said. “That's not to say we don't have options. We do, but we have capacity that's less than what is out there in the community.”
Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do criticized the move to summon so many attorneys to court.
“I don't think that it was a wise decision,” Do told CNS. “It's certainly not supported by the science we know about with COVID-19. It subjects a lot of people -- the public, the attorneys, court personnel, the sheriff's employees -- to risk that we know that exists in an operation like this. It defies the health advisories from all levels of government.”
The courtrooms are too small to accomplish the recommendations for social distancing, Do said.
“In an emergency, there's no reason why they couldn't hold the arraignments over at the jail in the CJ1 courtroom,” he said. “This is a more a matter of convenience than it is a necessity... This is irresponsible.”
Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the hearings “concern me a little bit right now.”
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said his department was working with everyone involved to “ensure the safety of the public, as well as preserve the constitutional rights of the defendants.”
Barnes added his department has “instituted new protocols that require additional cleaning and social distancing as much as can be practical in a custody environment.”
Barnes noted court officials “have reduced the number of open courtrooms and proceedings to as few locations as possible.”
Tom Dominguez, head of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents deputies, wrote a letter to Presiding Judge Kirk Nakamura criticizing the move.
Dominguez wrote that he did not find out about the court hearings until Thursday morning.
“Most of our members were not notified that courtrooms would reopen until they arrived at the start of their shift,” he wrote. “Your decision to open courtrooms poses a threat to the health of the public at large and our members. You are the presiding judge; therefore, we hold you responsible for this blunder.”
He added, “The safeguarding of the rights of criminal defendants is important; however, the health of the public is the highest priority as COVID- 19 tightens its grip on our community. We expect you to take immediate corrective actions that include implementing alternatives to personal appearances, whether that be virtually or through some other safe and appropriate means at your disposal.”
Attorney Michael Molfetta said with the courts closed and cases backing up, there is an opportunity for some defendants to strike plea bargains that might otherwise be unavailable.
Molfetta said he spent three hours in one of the courtrooms Thursday morning and “got nothing accomplished, but I understand why. I'm not mad... It's part of the deal. Everybody wants a resolution, but nobody wants to sacrifice to achieve it. Everyone should take a breath and slow down.”
Attorney Jacqueline Goodman said she spent much of the morning getting a runaround as she tried to find which courtrooms were handling her cases and make appearances through video conferencing.
She characterized the plan as “an abject failure of communication and leadership. It's shockingly astounding.”
Court officials plan to livestream court cases at https:/LiveStream.html.
“We are working very hard to provide access to justice, preserve everyone's constitutional rights and do our part to provide safety and security to all residents of Orange County in these unprecedented times,” said courts spokesman Kostas Kalaitzidis.