After COVID-19 concerns caused disruptions to operations at the Kern County Superior Court, a vast majority of the staff at the county's District Attorney’s Office has returned to work in anticipation of “more normal” operations soon according to Joseph Kinzel, spokesman for the DA’s office.
The court stopped hearing trials in March with some even being stopped “mid-stream,” according to Kinzel. He said trials that hadn't started have been largely moved to June.
“Cases that were waiting for trial on the trial calendar back when this all started generally would be first in line to go unless there were additional continuances sought by defendants and their attorneys,” Kinzel said.
On May 11 the Kern County Superior Court established an emergency rule allowing any party or counsel to contact the court if the current situation has denied their right to a speedy trial and will advance the trial date. No known requests have been made regarding this rule according to Kinzel and Kristin Davis, the court’s public affairs officer.
“The process is there to ensure that the opportunity exists,” Kinzel said.
The past few weeks the court system has had a “soft opening” for its operations including staggered hearings, according to local attorney Jeremy Swanson, who specializes in family law. He said the courts are scheduled to return to “full-strength” for matters related to family law Monday.
He explained that there has been "quite a bit" of backlogged cases involving domestic violence restraining orders and child custody. Only temporary domestic violence restraining orders have been made, yet Swanson said those cases statutorily have to be done first starting Monday.
“The next priority would be contested child custody cases,” Swanson said. “Any emergency situations concerning children with parents on drugs or any child abuse have been heard (the past few months) and will continue to be when necessary.”
In order to comply with social distancing practices, the court has allowed telephonic appearances for attorneys, video remote preliminary hearings from rooms within the DA’s office, and permitted some defendants to participate using a video feed from the jail’s hearing room, Kinzel said. Video arraignments have also been implemented to negate transporting large numbers of inmates to the courthouse.
Limitations were also made on courtroom entries in March that admitted just those required to attend hearings such as attorneys, parties and witnesses, Kinzel said.
Swanson said that Kern County Superior Court has been “leading the way” in California as far as returning operations back to normal as best as it can. He added that family law cases will not be heard until June in areas like Fresno and Los Angeles County.
“In Los Angeles, you’re going to see some custody cases that won’t be resolved for a year,” he said.
Anyone scheduled for jury duty from March 23 to May 18 has been rescheduled and there's currently no jury trials, according to Davis. A number of health and safety measures are being implemented for all upcoming jury duty participants.
According to Davis, some of the changes include: reducing the number of jurors called in at a time; staggering reporting times; moving jurors to a separate area to allow for social distancing; and adding disinfecting procedures.
Local resident Jenell Mahoney has concerns about the health and safety measures being taken for jury duty at court. Mahoney said both her daughter and her husband have been recently summoned and her husband — who is a 72-year-old cancer survivor — is expected to report in less than two weeks.
"The last time I served, the check-in for jury service was a long, crowded line and the jury services room was packed with several hundred people sitting side-by-side for hours," Mahoney said in an email to The Californian.