Question: What is going on with the legal system during this pandemic? I have heard that courts are closed except for emergencies. But what exactly does that mean?
Answer: On April 6, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court held an emergency meeting of the Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the California courts, in which she stated, “To say that there is no playbook is a gross understatement of the situation.” Like many other governmental bodies and businesses around the state and the country, our judicial system is trying its best to keep up with a changing situation.
Courts are an “essential service,” and like food and medicine, access to justice is critical to the stability of our society. News reports have noted that under shelter-in-place orders, incidents of domestic violence are on the rise. Victims of domestic violence and others need somewhere to turn.
In our own county superior court, the court is using remote access to accomplish its goal of maximizing access to justice while minimizing the overall risk to the public and court staff. Court appearances are being done remotely unless the court finds “good cause” to have an in-person meeting. Assistant Presiding Judge Daniel P. Maguire said that after the governor issued his directive that vulnerable populations remain at home, judges and officers at the Yolo Superior Court met over the weekend and took action.
Although it was too late to notify the prospective jurors who were scheduled to arrive on Monday morning March 16, the court posted notices outside the court directing the prospective jurors not to enter the courthouse. On Tuesday, March 17, the court implemented temporary emergency orders reducing the number of courtrooms from thirteen to three.
Presently, the court has one courtroom dealing with criminal matters and another dealing with civil law restraining orders (i.e. domestic violence, civil harassment, and elder abuse restraining orders) and emergency family law custody hearings. There is one additional courtroom reserved for other matters that require more attention from the court. Although the rules regarding certain criminal matters can be complex due to federal and state constitutional mandates, all other pending matters before the court will be rescheduled months into the future.
Judge Maguire noted the difficult task that he and the court are facing, “We are seeking to balance access to justice with a safe environment for others.” Yolo Superior Court typically sees approximately 1,000 people per day come through its doors. In this crisis, that number has been reduced to approximately thirty.
Apart from the courthouse, individual law offices are continuing to “virtually” operate, and legal documents are being executed from a safe distance. Although many documents can be electronically signed or even signed and scanned, some documents must bear an original signature. Real property documents must bear original signatures and even require acknowledgment by a notary public.
Unlike other states, California does not provide for “remote notarization,” which means that a notary must be physically present in order to acknowledge a person’s signature. The California Secretary of State, who oversees notaries public, has stated that the governor’s executive order does not prohibit notaries public from performing their duties. Of course, any notary and the person signing should take all precautions possible to maintain a safe distance and ensure clean writing instruments and document handling.
In addition to notarization, some legal documents, such as deeds of trust or deeds to real property, must be recorded with the county recorder. Although the Yolo County Recorder’s Office is closed to the public, the recorder notes that it is accepting and processing documents in the mail.
California officials acted quickly to protect the public, which has benefited us all, but those actions created difficulties in the administration of justice, an essential service. However, our court officials and local judges have performed well under an intense amount of pressure to ensure that access to justice remains open to all of us. The courthouse door remains virtually open to anyone who needs it.
Preston Morgan is a partner at Kopper, Morgan & Dietrich, a Davis law firm providing family law, estate planning and trust litigation representation. His column is published every other week in the Davis Enterprise. To pose a question to Preston Morgan, contact him at https://kopperlaw.com.
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