California Chief Justice Reflects on “Unprecedented” Year

California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye gave the following remarks at the start of the March 12 Judicial Council meeting:

It may be hard to believe that it has been just over a year since Governor Newsom declared a State of Emergency in California on March 4, 2020 to “protect public health and safety.” We find ourselves having survived that year and a few days and still not quite yet out of the pandemic.

Also around this time last year, in March, I delivered my State of the Judiciary address. I spoke about our commitment to collaborative justice courts, our efforts to reform fines and fees, and advances in diversity and access, and how courts are evolving to be more than places that resolve disputes but are in fact becoming centers for social justice.

I also thanked the Governor and the Legislature for the innovations grant funding and shared how courts have used that funding and delivered results to increase the public’s access to justice in our courts and especially having done so through technology.

I mentioned how Monterey had developed a mobile app to access court cases, calendars and the ability to pay online traffic tickets.

I mentioned in Butte, that that court had provided court users there, and in other rural jurisdictions, with the ability to access self-help services through Skype, and remote access was already playing an enhanced role in all the courts.

Then on March 19, 2020, the Governor issued the stay-at-home order to “slow the spread of COVID-19.”

And just a mere seven passed days later, on March 27, the court received through the Governor an Executive Order (N-38-20) giving the Judicial Council emergency authority to take actions for the courts, the public, our staff, our jurists, to be able to conduct business during the pandemic, making it clear that courts were essential and that we would be functioning throughout the pandemic.

And that is the critical statement: “to be able to conduct business during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Little did we know what that would mean for all of us, for our court users, our court family.

On March 13, 2020, I issued a statement about how the judicial branch would work closely with local, county, state, and federal health departments, and local justice system partners to balance public safety and health while protecting liberty and due process through local rules and emergency orders.

As you know through those advisories and later orders, we had to take into account local orders, local cultures, local populations, as well as state and federal orders. Two advisories on emergency relief followed.

I asked our Judicial Council rules committee to review and recommend changes to court rules so the court system could respond quickly and efficiently to the ongoing needs of all court users.

I issued a statewide order, the first of its kind, temporarily suspending all jury trials in California.

One day after the Judicial Council received the Governor’s emergency authority, we acted to approve temporary emergency measures to continue essential court services while protecting the health and safety of our court family, all court users, and to encourage the greater use of technology for remote proceedings and operations for as many types of court transactions as we could.

We followed those actions with 11 temporary emergency rules, including rules to lower jail populations and to suspend evictions and foreclosures. As you recall, we were doing this while the Legislature was out of session due to the pandemic.

We committed to use the responsibility delegated to us by the Governor by that executive order “with utmost care and judiciousness” and that “no need and no right would be overlooked.”

We acted responsibly to flatten the curve in our state—with our courts, with our lawyers, with our court employees—but there was no guidance in history, law, or precedent. And, as I said at the time—there was no playbook.

Throughout this past year, we have continued to strive and struggle to balance equal access to justice with a safe physical and remote court environment, and to continue to conduct the people’s business amid the pandemic.

I have issued almost 500 local emergency orders for courts, allowing them to modify court deadlines to meet these ever-changing multiple local and state health and safety measures as needed in their county with their law partners.

Our courts’ desire and need to innovate—combined with our judicial branch technology planning, and funding support from our sister branches of government—has delivered a variety of enhanced services and options to court users and their justice system. For example:

  • Remote proceedings—trial courts, appellate courts and the Supreme Court have implemented various remote technology solutions for a wide range of court proceedings, including hearings, self-help, mediation, and administrative functions.
  • Online Live Chat and Automated ChatBot—all new language to me —assists the public with their court needs, including the Ability-to Pay-tool, frequently asked questions (FAQs) in English and Spanish, and a Name Change service.
  • Voice to Text Language Translation—enabling court users to interact with court staff in their first or preferred language through real-time transcripts.
  • Digital Services—that include a Self-Represented Litigant Portal, enhanced forms search, a court location finder, online walkthroughs for filing certain case types.
  • And CourtStack—a software created by court employees throughout the state to provide a unified way to model these digital services and apps that are compatible with multiple case management systems.

“Unprecedented” was the word frequently used to define us in 2020. Unprecedented also appropriately describes the response to the pandemic, the desire to innovate and adapt, and the commitment to equity and equal access throughout California.

But as we know, challenges and opportunities remain. We can and will go further and accomplish more. And together, with our court staffs who have toiled so diligently amidst these challenges, while we have relied on technology through the pandemic, we still know and appreciate the value and need for the human touch—in person interactions—and the continued need for our invaluable court staff.

We can and will innovate more to enhance services. We can and will support our local communities even more.

And now, a year plus later, we have an opportunity to leverage the knowledge and the lessons we learned from being able to conduct business during the pandemic, with input from all who lived through it—our justice partners and the public—and to be able to continue to refine and enhance court practices.

I have been inspired by what the courts, at every level of our justice system, have been able to achieve in their unprecedented efforts to serve the public during this time.

And as we begin to see and move toward what I think is the light at the end of this pandemic episode, we—jurists, court staff, people who use our courts, our community—should:

  • Build on our successes with remote proceedings and the proven benefits to many, many, court users, judicial officers, and court staff.
  • Learn from and build on our experiences with Unlawful Detainer and our Temporary Emergency Rules 1 and 2, with our sister branches of government and their reactions and actions to the pandemic.
  • Again should revisit our Jury System Reform—we should look at the challenges of impaneling a jury and having a jury trial with one’s peers; and
  • Consider other practices that local courts have implemented to better serve the public, to be more efficient, and to adapt to ever-changing conditions facing court users during the pandemic.

Our justice system has always been committed to equity and access to justice, and the pandemic and our ability to stay open, to be responsive, to innovate, and to provide justice throughout has taught us even greater lessons.

Now, we turn our attention to developing those lessons into smart practices, options, and opportunities, including consideration and implementation of uniform practices that will achieve equal and equitable access across our state.

I know I need not remind all of you that during pandemic, you and we were boots on the ground. A ground that was, in my view, an ever-changing landscape. I thank all of you for your wise counsel and volunteer time during what I know is also a personal and professional pandemic in your work and in your lives. And on the positive side, now I think we are fortunate to have such deep and diverse personal and professional knowledge and expertise.

And the Judicial Council, our Judicial Council staff, our internal and our advisory committees, will work toward making that into a positive experience and practices going forward. And together, writ large, we—I mean the big we—we will integrate the lessons learned from the pandemic. And I will discuss with [Administrative Director] Martin Hoshino and our internal chairs, all of you, how we can focus to deliver enhanced court services to all Californians in the future.

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