Sonoma, Napa lawyers and court officers hail loosening of state rules

California Chief Judge Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye on March 3 announced an order overturning emergency measures that have delayed civil jury trials and resulted in more distant hearings.

The removal of the measures will come into effect on April 30, two months before they expire. The changes to court proceedings ordered in March 2020 came about a week after Governor Gavin Newsom announced a reversal of statewide executive orders put in place as the state’s response to the pandemic.

“These events mark a significant and hopeful shift as our state’s residents and government transition to a semblance of pre-COVID-19 California,” Chief Justice said in a statement.

Napa County Superior Court and Sonoma County Superior Court officials said they experienced a backlog of civil jury trials during the pandemic.

“The greatest impact of the rule overturns will be felt in our Civil Division as we once again return to jury trials,” Sonoma County Presiding Judge Shelly Averill told The Business Journal.

When the winter push of the Omicron variant hit over the holidays, jury trials were underway. Criminal trials were eventually conducted in person during the wave of reopenings, but civil trials were conducted virtually under state order.

As the courts move towards an endemic stage of the virus, Averill intends to “continue to allow the use of remote appearances as permitted by applicable law outside of emergency orders.” For example, this can happen if a person due to appear lives far from the courthouse.

“It’s been an extremely useful tool throughout the pandemic,” she said, further highlighting how the pandemic has made technological advancements viable options.

These courts have also suffered a shortage of returning court reporters since the pandemic, forcing courts to issue bulletins about the rooms in which they work. Before the pandemic hit, the Sonoma County Court employed 15 full-time court reporters. Then two retirees and others were away to self-quarantine and stay home with their children, among other reasons. Today, the court has an average of nine or 10 full-time court reporters available each day, but it needs 18. And it is also difficult to recruit freelance journalists.

“It’s impacted us significantly,” said CEO Arlene Junior.

Due to the shortage, lawyers were forced to source their own court reporters.

The Marin County Superior Court declined to comment on the changes.

State court leaders meeting on March 11 are also set to restore in-person criminal trials, but may also expand a defendant’s right to waive appearance.

In addition, the California Judicial Council will receive a report on how to spend $25 million from this year’s state budget to modernize court operations. This could include expanding e-filings, courtroom reminders, access to court records and other online services.

“All (these changes) that I see are an attempt to get things back to normal,” Santa Rosa attorney John Friedemann said.

He noted that settlements in lieu of trials — which have historically dominated the courts — have increased during the pandemic, as have the cost of litigation. A handshake on the courtroom steps turns out to be much less costly than a full list of electronic evidence now expected in trials.

“That adds another ($1 million) to a deal,” Friedemann said.

David Berry, the president of the Sonoma County Bar Association, would like to see masks thrown into the courtroom in the interests of justice.

“Masks have been difficult because you lose that non-verbal communication,” he said, adding that he’s also seen a focus on settling cases.

“If you look back a year, we have done very few civil lawsuits since the pandemic in Sonoma County. This encouraged litigants to find creative ways to reach a settlement. We do almost everything on Zoom.

For Berry, it’s all about eye contact.

“In my world of Zoom depositions, I try to look at the eyes,” the 26-year-old justice veteran said.

But with all the innovation, technological tools and experience, the process during the pandemic was not perfect in his eyes, compromising “the administration of justice” in some respects.

“I hope the pandemic becomes rampant and we all resume our activities,” he said.

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