As public spaces begin to reopen throughout California, patrons will notice changes in accessibility to those spaces, as well as the increased cleaning and safety protocols now in place, particularly as they relate to COVID-19. Given that California counties are opening in waves depending upon their progress controlling COVID-19 cases, this article breaks down some of the changes to expect when accessing courts in the counties of Orange, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
In Orange County, most court appearances by attorneys have been done telephonically to significantly cut down on the number of people entering the courthouse. For most hearings, such as law and motion and case management conferences, telephonic appearances were common before COVID-19, so the telephonic appearances for those hearings have not changed the dynamic of the courtroom much, if at all. The changes will be most noticeable for those hearings that mandate in-person appearances in the courthouse. Most notably, face masks or face coverings must be worn inside the courthouse at all times. Individuals who present to the courthouse without a mask will be denied entry. Individuals who display possible symptoms of COVID-19 will not be allowed to enter the courthouse. Physical distancing rules, including maintaining at least six feet of space between individuals, will also be strictly enforced throughout the court facilities, “thus, the number of individuals entering public courtrooms and elevators will be subject to space limitations.”
In light of this, many people wonder if and how jury trials will be able to proceed. According to Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 36(e), jury trials in non-criminal cases may be permitted to proceed in the interests of justice. Thus, in Orange County, civil jury trials had somewhat resumed in the fall of 2020. The most notable changes for juries thus far include mobile check-in for jurors so that they can avoid standing in line to check and can go straight to the jury assembly room. Additionally, jury trials are expected to be held in larger courtrooms to ensure compliance with the physical distancing rules. In order to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, jurors will not be seated only in the jury box in the court room, but will be spaced throughout the court room to be at least six feet apart. However, as of December 11, 2020, in person jury trials were suspended again at least through January 29, 2021.
Courts, including the Central, Harbor, North, West, and Lamoreaux Justice Centers, have also established pop-up tents outside of each of the courthouses to assist the public with specific services as, presently, the only individuals allowed to enter the courthouses are those with an in-person hearing or previously scheduled appointment for counter services. The specific services offered at the pop-up tents include those such as records requests, interpreter requests, and the Self-Help Center to provide procedural guidance and information regarding forms for civil matters. In order to be certain that you can obtain the information and help you need, the best practice is to make an appointment. The list of services for which appointments can be made can be found at https://www.occourts.org/media-relations/CourtCalendarAppointments.html.
Los Angeles County
Similar to Orange County, Los Angeles County has been conducting most hearings by telephone. Los Angeles County courts have also opened their doors to the public for required in-person hearings and previously scheduled appointments. Inside the Los Angeles County courts, patrons can expect mandatory use of face masks or face coverings at all times when inside the courthouses, social distancing protocols and barriers, enhanced cleaning, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes throughout, and signs directing visitors where to stand. Unlike in Orange County, Los Angeles County indicated that it would not resume civil jury trials until at least January of 2021, however, due to the current spike in COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County, civil jury trials are not expected to resume this month. Los Angeles County has also continued non-jury trials scheduled between October 9, 2020 and November 6, 2020, until further notice. This determination was made given that Los Angeles County has the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths out of the 58 counties in the State of California.
Los Angeles County courts have also reopened for specific services, including self-help services and the Clerk’s office. However, appointments must be made in advance if a patron wishes to be admitted into the courthouse for assistance with those services. Los Angeles County has also expanded self-help options to be available online or by telephone in an effort to reduce the need for in-person assistance. While Clerk’s office appointments will only be available by telephone or in person, some self-help services will be available online in addition to by telephone or in person. Appointments for self-help services can be made here: https://www.lacourt.org/selfhelp/selfhelp.aspx. Additionally, “on-demand” videos are being made available for certain self-help services on the Los Angeles County court website.
Like Orange County and Los Angeles County, San Diego County is conducting many civil hearings, such as law and motion and case management conferences, remotely by telephone. For hearings or appointments that require in-person appearances at the courthouses, San Diego County has implemented temperature checks and symptom screenings, face covering mandates, enforcement of social distancing, increased cleaning measures for high touch surfaces such as elevator buttons, and hand sanitizer kiosks. San Diego County also requests that no person who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, been in close contact to an individual who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, experienced symptoms of COVID-19, or traveled from a country on the CDC Warning Level 2 or 3 Travel Advisory within the last 14 days enter the courthouse. If any individual falling within that category requires emergency services, that individual will be assisted outside of the courthouse.
San Diego County jury trials have resumed as of January of 2021, albeit not at full capacity. San Diego has made telephonic and online services available for potential jurors to determine whether or not they will need to go to the courthouse for jury service. Concessions sales may be limited or unavailable in the courthouses, so jurors are encouraged to bring snacks or lunch with them to the courthouse. Moreover, significantly fewer jurors are being summoned, capacity in jury assembly rooms will be limited, and social distancing markers will be in place to keep space between jurors. Juror interviews will take place where six feet of distance can be maintained and selected jurors will be seated six feet apart from others in the courtroom or seated in a jury box with a protective plastic panel installed between jurors and other court participants. When it comes time to deliberate, jurors will be sent to another courtroom or to a larger meeting room in order to maintain six feet of space between jurors. San Diego County has installed protective plastic panels in front of the judge, between attorney desks, at the witness stand, and in other spaces throughout the courtroom where individuals are required to speak and participate.
Public access services have also resumed in most courthouses in San Diego. Drop boxes and research kiosks have been made available. San Diego County is working to implement an online system for requesting court records, but, for now, a trip to the courthouse for such requests is still required. Additionally, an appointment is required in order to request access to exhibits. A complete list of public services in San Diego County can be found here: http://www.sdcourt.ca.gov/pls/portal/docs/PAGE/SDCOURT/GENERALINFORMATION/COVID-19INFO/GUIDE%20TO%20SD%20SUPERIOR%20COURT%20SERVICES%20DURING%20COVID-19.PDF.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a fluid, ever-changing situation and, as such, the information stated in this article may change as the pandemic progresses. Therefore, for the most up to date information per county, please visit the county court websites. Every website for the counties discussed in this article has a section dedicated to updated information on the COVID-19 pandemic.
 Superior Court of California, County of Orange News Release, June 3, 2020.
 Superior Court, County of Orange Second Amended Administrative Order No. 20/16 Required Safety Measures and Face Coverings in Court.
 Superior Court of California, County of Orange News Release, June 3, 2020.
 Id.; see also Superior Court, County of Orange Second Amended Administrative Order No. 20/16 Required Safety Measures and Face Coverings in Court.
 Superior Court of California, County of Orange News Release, December 11, 2020.
 Superior Court of California, County of Orange News Release, June 30, 2020.
 See Civil: General Information https://www.occourts.org/self-help/civil/.
 Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles News Release, June 12, 2020.
 Administrative Order of the Presiding Judge re COVID-19 Pandemic, October 9, 2020; Coronavirus-related Court Announcements, Los Angeles, December 4, 2020.
 Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles News Release, May 29, 2020.
 San Diego Superior Court Resumes Civil Court Trials, November 5, 2020; Superior Court of California County of San Diego General Order of the Presiding Department, Order No. 010121-44.
 Guide to SD Superior Court Services During COVID-19, September 5, 2020.