California Courts are Closed

Only the most knowledgeable about history, or the ones with the greatest memories, can say what happened more than, say, half a century ago, like when Pearl Harbor was attacked or President Kennedy was assassinated. But within an hour or so after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the San Diego County state courts closed. I remember. I was there. I was representing someone whose case was the first to be called , and we had a complete hearing, even though, as West Coasters, we knew about the terrorist attacks before we started presenting our case. To this day, I remember the judge, the other attorney, my client, and what the case was about. I also remember that we won. But just as the judge was announcing his decision, a sheriff’s deputy walked up to him and whispered something in his ear. The judge relayed the message, indicating that there would be no further matters heard that day.

The courts also suffered closures when sheriff deputies were needed to help with the wildfires in 2003 and 2007. Even the San Francisco earthquake of 1989 caused disruptions, although not necessarily here.

We think of courts as unemotional, stalwart institutions, but the people who work there are just human beings, as are the parties and their lawyers. The same problems that affect everyone else affect the courts – too many people too close together, not enough “social distancing”, etc. I wonder what would happen now if the courts were open if someone asked a judge, “may I approach the witness” or simply “may I approach”? I think the answer would be, “hell no!”.

Courts can shut down for really any reason, maybe even a plumbing problem. This requires special orders from the bench adjusting deadlines that cannot be adhered to because the courthouse in question is locked when documents are due. And the latest word is that at least here in San Diego, the state courts will not be reopening until Monday, April 6, 2020. ( The Court has charitably characterized the closure as ending on Friday, April 3.) There is one break, however. The courts were going to be closed anyway on the 31st, because that is Cesar Chavez Day, which is a state holiday.

We need our courts to promote the orderly resolution of disputes. Some cases are entitled to more priority than others, but everyone’s case is important. Not knowing what comes next only adds to the anxiety that those who have to resort to courts to resolve their disputes experience in the first instance. The backlog and other logistical concerns that result from the closures of the courts is going to be staggering. For example, cases that were supposed to be heard during the time that the courthouse was closed have to be rescheduled. People who were personally ordered at a previous hearing to be present at the next hearing will have a strong argument if they do not show up because the next hearing is on a different date than the date on which they were ordered to appear!

True, telephonic court appearances have become more popular in recent years, but right now, even a hearing where there are no jurors involved and both lawyers are on the phone will not take place.

Each county has its own branch of the California Superior Court, but the closure notices from the various California counties have been similar, though not identical. So it’s not like you can pack your bags and go to a court which has more friendly operation policies in place. Plus, California has strict rules on where cases may be filed anyway.

I don’t want to make a federal case about this, but the decisions of the state judges do not affect the United States District Court for the Southern District of California or any other federal court. But even federal judges, who enjoy lifetime appointments and can only be removed by being impeached by the House of Representatives and then convicted by two-thirds of the Senate, cannot tempt fate. Some have elected to shutdown or to only conduct business through teleconferencing. I also believe that the California Supreme Court has reduced its operations to telephonic appearances only, but I’m not sure about that. If I’m wrong, sue me.