A Bakersfield attorney says she's afraid she may have exposed courthouse staff, bailiffs, other attorneys and her own client to COVID-19 after she says a local judge ordered her to appear in his courtroom last week even though the result of her COVID test was still pending.
Mai Shawwa, a private-practice attorney who represents clients through the local Indigent Defense Program, was tested for COVID-19 last Monday, June 29, after she began feeling sick the previous weekend and suspected she had the virus.
On Tuesday, she said, she was ordered to appear on behalf of her client by Kern County Superior Court Judge John Oglesby, via a phone call from Oglesby’s court clerk. Shawwa, through the clerk, asked the judge to reconsider, noting that her COVID test was still pending.
The clerk informed the judge of Shawwa’s concern, Shawwa said, but to no avail. He required her presence in court at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
“I wasn’t given an option despite my resistance,” Shawwa told The Californian in a series of texts.
On Thursday, the results of her test came back positive for COVID-19.
In response to questions from The Californian, Kristin Davis, public affairs officer at Kern County Superior Court, provided a written response from the court late Monday afternoon
"A review of the communications between the court and Ms. Shawwa show that there was not a direct order requiring Ms. Shawwa to attend court, and there was a misunderstanding as to Ms. Shawwa’s physical condition," the statement read.
The court agreed that it was notified on Monday, June 29, that Shawwa was tested for COVID-19.
"However, on Tuesday, June 30, "the court understood that Ms. Shawwa attributed her physical symptoms to allergies, and not to a possible COVID-19 condition. Ms. Shawwa informed the court that she was actually feeling better on June 30, 2020.
"Ms. Shawwa, who was at her office at the time of the telephone communication on June 30, 2020, did not oppose the court’s request that she come into court to address the pending trial issues. When Ms. Shawwa appeared in court she maintained an appropriate social distance from other court participants and she wore her facial covering during the appearance," the statement concluded.
Shawwa shared her anger and frustration in a Facebook post the evening she received the notification she had tested positive.
"Kern County Superior Court decided to resume business as usual as if reality wasn’t happening around us," she wrote. "Last weekend I started to get sick and my co-counsel that’s been sitting next to me in trial for three weeks was exposed. I thought I definitely have to test and advised the court accordingly. Judge ORDERED me in court despite everything I told him. Today I got my results that I’m positive for Covid 19. All I want to do is break (expletive) right now."
Joel Lueck, director of the IDP, said Monday he learned of Shawwa's situation on Friday.
"I don't know the extent of this," he said, noting that Shawwa related details to him last week.
"If true, it's concerning to me and should be concerning to the court," he said.
Questions about whether those in the downtown Bakersfield courthouse who came in contact with Shawwa have been placed in quarantine are yet to be answered. They include defendants who remain in custody in Kern County Jail.
Her IDP co-counsel, David Evers, was also sick, and was not required by the judge to appear in court last Tuesday, Shawwa said.
Oglesby was aware that both she and her co-counsel were tested.
"Tuesday his clerk called to tell me the judge wants you to come to court. I told her that I shouldn’t because I don’t have my results yet and that the third lawyer on the case can appear for all of us," she told The Californian.
"She told me that she'll talk to the judge and call me back. Five minutes later, she called and said, the judge wants you in court at 10 regardless."
The judge, she said, knew she was exhibiting symptoms and that Evers was experiencing more serious symptoms.
"The clerk’s exact words were 'he sounded terrible,'" she said, referring to Evers' voice over the phone.
In late June, the trial was in jury selection. The trial was "dark" on Friday, June 26, but the jury was there Monday through Thursday, June 22 through 25. The jury was sworn in June 25, but was not present the following Tuesday, the day Shawwa was sick but appeared in court.
Asked if it's possible she was contagious but asymptomatic during jury selection, Shawwa didn't hesitate.
"Yes," she said. "Maybe two of us were."
After seeing a copy of the court's response late Monday afternoon, Shawwa was incensed.
She showed The Californian a copy of an email she sent to Judge Oglesby, the court clerk and others on Monday, June 29, describing her symptoms as "a cough and aches."
"The morning of, when I got called, I was in my office grabbing my files to work from home," she said. "I get told to come in. I said No, I shouldn’t and was ordered to. Everything else is bull."
"I had to go back home and change out of my sweats to make it to court as ordered," she added.
"And I even told the clerk, I’m not dressed properly. She said the judge is OK with business casual. I couldn't get out of it."
On Monday, a mistrial was declared in the second-degree murder case, according to the court's website.