California court closures in pandemic hinder law firms from doing 'essential' business as postponed cases pile up
"Case closed" is taking on a new meaning in California since Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye issued a statewide order that suspends all jury trials in superior courts for 60 days, sending North Bay law firms scrambling over how to move their matters forward.
Considered an essential business, law firms have been thrust into a new set of circumstances associated with the coronavirus outbreak.
Law partners from lower Marin to northern Sonoma and Napa Valley cited a multitude of issues with this statewide order. They range from court calendars in flux and lengthy procedures for securing signatures to the loss of in-person arguments and even communicating within their firms.
“Attorneys, clients and the courts have not had sufficient time to absorb all of the familial, social, health and professional upheaval this situation has brought in such an extremely short period of time,” Glenn Smith of Smith Dollar said. “While it is not unusual for civil cases to be continued, having all cases prolonged simultaneously and for an indefinite period of time is unprecedented.”
The shutdown has brought personal injury and business cases as well as probate matters to a screeching halt, Smith pointed out.
These unsettling times have led to the Santa Rosa firm even fielding at least 20 inquiries in the past week from couples seeing to dissolve their marriages, although Smith's company doesn't practice that type of law.
Like other area law firms, Smith has also noticed an unusual number of estate planning calls coming in as adults with time on their hands and concerns about their own mortality try to get their affairs in order.
Beyond his firm's specialties ranging from labor and environment to banking and finance, Smith serves as the president of Legal Aid of Sonoma County. Court closures dramatically affect the nonprofit organization's ability to help the needy, including the elderly and domestic violence victims.
Despite the courts making special concessions for emergency cases such as those relative to civil harassment and eviction injunctions, any type of delay may work to the detriment of vulnerable defendants. “The clients are often in a position where delayed justice is denied justice,” he said.
How we got here
The two-month state order set on March 23 followed chain-reaction government responses that started with Gov. Gavin Newsom declaring a state of emergency on March 4, before a national declaration was made by U.S. President Trump on March 13. Afterward, California counties with the San Francisco Bay Area leading the charge issued shelter-in-place orders three days later. The governor followed suit with a statewide order on March 19.
“Courts cannot comply with these health restrictions and continue to operate as they have in the past,” the chief justice said in a statement. “Court proceedings require gatherings of court staff, litigants, attorneys, witnesses and juries, well in excess of the numbers allowed for gathering under current executive and health orders.”
Exceptions exist relative to statutory deadlines and procedures, with individual counties forced to adopt new rules.
For example, Sonoma County Superior Court under order of Judge Bradford DeMeo has limited access to civil, family and juvenile courtrooms. Matters pertaining to the “defendants' constitutional rights” and health and safety will be considered as “essential” functions at the judge's discretion. Like many aspects of life around the globe, court proceedings using video conferencing has taken a front seat for matters that need to be heard.
But while using Zoom for virtual cocktail happy hours may deliver an adequate substitute to in-person contact, it pales in comparison to legal proceedings in which litigators seek communication clues from judges to know if their arguments are working.
“It's a huge disadvantage to not have oral arguments in person,” said John Friedemann of Friedemann Goldberg in Santa Rosa.
Friedemann insisted the new statewide order “definitely impacts” his law practice because of the uncertainty of how his legal profession will come out of the other end of this global pandemic.
Many issues abound, including law firms coping with the code of civil proceeding that attorneys follow. One delayed date impacts the others in a case in a domino effect.
“It boggles my mind how all those deadlines have trial dates that don't resurrect on their own,” he told the North Bay Business Journal.
“How are we going to deal with the backlog of cases?” Friedemann asked rhetorically. Many courts have experienced a heavy load before the COVID-19 outbreak.