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Newsom hands expansive powers to Calif. Chief Justice to handle court caseloads

Facing a crisis in California’s courtrooms with coronavirus threatening attorneys, judges, and criminal defendants, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order on Friday to grant broad powers to California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to manage court procedures, including suspending certain laws.

County Superior Courts, which report to the Judicial Council – the policymaking body of California’s judiciary – have spent the past two weeks seeking clarity on how to operate while balancing the need to meet statutory deadlines to conduct court business while also practicing social distancing.

For some counties, the efforts have yielded clunky results. Fresno County sought repeated clarity from Cantil-Sakuye regarding how to slim down operations yet meet the legally-required deadlines.

Ultimately, Cantil-Sakauye issued an order on March 17 that paved the way for Fresno County Superior Court Presiding Judge Arlan Harrell to shut down all court operations, save for emergency matters, through April 3.

One day after Newsom issued his executive order, the Judicial Council approved a bevy of measures to lighten the load on skeleton judicial crews statewide.

Among the temporary changes:

  • The period for holding a preliminary hearing or release a defendant in a criminal case was extended from 10 days to 30 days
  • The period for felony defendant to be seen by a judicial officer is extended from 48 hours to no more than 7 days
  • The period for holding a criminal trial is extended by more than 30 days of the current statutory period
  • The period for bringing a civil action to trial by more than 30 days.

To avoid an avalanche of cases arriving on dockets when courts reopen, the Judicial Council moved to extend those moves by 90 days after Newsom lifts the coronavirus state of emergency order.

For proceedings that are still slated to occur within California’s courts, the Judicial Council recommended emphasizing video and teleconference technology to conduct hearings and utilize e-filing and electronic service of process.

“We are in unprecedented times and I assured the Governor that we will assume this responsibility with utmost care and judiciousness,” Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at [email protected]