California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye suspended all superior court jury trials for 60 days late Monday.
“Temporarily suspending jury trials is a drastic, yet necessary, step to blunt the devastation of COVID-19 in our community. However, it is incompatible with many of our sacred constitutional rights, including the presumption of innocence,” said Santa Barbara County Public Defender’s Office Chief Trial Deputy Lea Villegas.
Ms. Cantil-Sakauye’s order is effective until May 22. Courts may conduct such a trial at an earlier date, upon a finding of good cause or through the use of remote technology.
Santa Barbara County Superior Court CEO Darrel Parker said all county jury trials are continued for 60 days regardless of the age of the case.
“We will prioritize the oldest criminal trials when we come back online. We are identifying all those cases now,” Mr. Parker said.
The order empowers superior courts to adopt or amend any rules that address the COVID-19 pandemic. Those rules can become effective immediately, without the usual 45 day public comment period.
Courts that adopt new rules must provide a copy to California Judicial Council Staff and post a notice prominently on the court’s website with the rule’s effective date. Litigant’s substantive rights, such as liberty, may not be penalized for failing to comply with new rules for 20 days from the rule’s effective date.
“Until we can safely resume courtroom operations, including jury trials, the solution must be to have a more liberal policy of release from the jail and to reduce the revolving door of staff and detainees in and out of the jail. Unfortunately, our jail continues to house many individuals who are not a threat to public safety and who are only in jail because they cannot afford bail,” Ms. Villegas said.
She added that the Public Defender’s Office is encouraging the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney and superior court to release inmates safely, reduce bookings for “low-level offenses,” and provide a way for clients to have critical matters heard in court.