California Courts Will Relax COVID Rules, But Want Lawmakers To Allow Remote Appearances

As California eases some of its COVID-19 restrictions, state courts have started to move in the same direction, tightening timetables for civil trials and criminal court hearings. Judicial leaders are also considering restoring rules for in-person criminal trials, but may ask lawmakers to continue to let defendants appear remotely.

After Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted most of the state’s indoor masking requirements Feb. 15, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said last week she would withdraw, effective April 30, several court emergency orders she imposed in March 2020.

One order allows judges in felony criminal cases to hold a preliminary hearing 30 days after a defendant is charged, instead of the previous 10-day deadline. At a preliminary hearing, the judge decides whether prosecutors have presented enough evidence to proceed with their case. Another order extended by 60 days the previous deadlines for starting trials in civil cases.

Cantil-Sakauye said she would also revoke orders that gave local courts broad authority to conduct proceedings remotely, and that allowed courts to adopt pandemic-related rules without 45 days of public comment, as previously required.

Citing Newsom’s orders, the chief justice said, “these events mark an important and hopeful change as the residents and government of our state transition to a semblance of pre-COVID-19 California.”

In a follow-up action, the state Judicial Council, chaired by Cantil-Sakauye, said it would meet Friday to consider repealing the remaining emergency court rules as of June 30.

One rule allows criminal defendants to appear remotely at court proceedings and waive their right to be physically present at trials that their lawyers attend in person. But the council said it would consider sponsoring legislation that would preserve, by state law rather than regulations, the current system authorizing remote appearances.

Another rule that could be withdrawn increased the duration of court orders prohibiting individuals from possessing firearms if they had committed acts of domestic violence, or if a close family member or law enforcement officer persuaded a judge that the person would be dangerous if armed.

Before the pandemic, the orders had been limited to 21 days. The 2020 rules, now being reconsidered, authorize an initial ban on gun possession of up to 90 days. With either deadline, a judge could extend the ban for five years after a hearing.

The council said it would also consider repealing rules that extended deadlines for filing lawsuits.



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