Nov. 13, 2020
In-person civil jury trial success in OC
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced courts all over the state to quickly adapt to new modes of operation. Civil operations in Orange County was no exception.
James J. Di Cesare
Judge, Orange County Superior Court
Court Operations Manager, Orange County Superior Court
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced courts all over the state to quickly adapt to new modes of operation. Civil operations in Orange County was no exception. The Orange County bench and the Orange Bar Association and its affiliates have always been very collaborative and this collaborative culture has continued throughout the pandemic. One of our primary topics of conversation has been "When will we resume in-person civil trials, in-person court trials and remote trials," followed closely by "Now that we have resumed in-person jury civil trials and other, what do they look like?"
The Orange County Superior Court resumed conducting in person civil jury trials and selected in person civil court trials in mid-September. Court trials are generally conducted remotely. Jury trials are conducted in person in one of the five departments designated for civil jury trials. Since Sept. 22, we have been able to try 17 in-person jury trials and 19 court trials. Safety to jurors, witnesses, parties, attorneys and court staff has been of paramount concern.
Monday trial calls are conducted by the assigned judge through remote appearances. Cases answering ready are placed on a trailing trial list awaiting assignment of a trial judge and courtroom by the civil supervising judge. Parties should expect that most court trials will be conducted remotely (e.g. through WebEx). In limited circumstances, the civil supervising judge may permit bench trials to proceed in-person, subject to physical distancing guidelines in order promote public safety.
The court has designated five courtrooms at the Central Justice Center and the Civil Complex Center (C4, CX102, CX103, CX104, CX105) for conducting in-person civil jury trials. Jury trials are assigned by the civil supervising judge based on a number of criteria, including statutory priority, case age, length of trial, number of parties, stipulation to fewer than 12 jurors, and whether the case is an expedited jury trial. Based on these criteria and subject to trial courtroom availability, the civil supervising judge selects the cases to commence jury trial.
Once a jury trial is given the approval to proceed, the judicial officer hearing the case hears pre-trial motions and orders a jury panel. The availability of jurors for a civil jury panel is subject to availability, as criminal cases take priority on available jurors.
Conducting jury trials with physical distancing requirements necessitates certain operational changes. Everyone must wear face coverings at all times inside the courthouse, with the exception of witnesses while testifying and at the discretion of the trial judge. Civil jury panels include 40 prospective jurors on each panel, and may occur in a different courtroom where the jury trial will be conducted. Due to space limitations from physical distancing requirements, voir dire may be conducted in rounds, with jurors seated both in the jury box as well as in the courtroom gallery. In some trials, the voir dire of one group of jurors may be broadcast to a second group of jurors in a second location to allow both groups to hear all voir dire questioning. Juror questionnaires may be used at the discretion of the trial judge.
Since jurors will be occupying the gallery as well as the jury box, parties are reminded to plan for this ahead of time in considering the number of parties and witnesses they bring to the proceedings at the same time. Safety is the prime concern.
A word on public access. While physical distancing requirements have forced the court to limit the ability of the public to observe proceedings in person, the court remains committed to providing public access to civil proceedings. Most civil unlimited/complex non-trial matters are heard by CourtCall, which provides public access dial-in lines. Civil court trials will be conducted by remote video through WebEx, with public access provided by contacting the courtroom clerk for the trial department for the link. Civil jury trials will be livestreamed on the court's website.
Parties and counsel in civil cases are encouraged to review the materials on the court's website for the latest information.
The Orange County Superior Court has also had great success with other civil panel operations. We have continued to successfully hear thousands of in-person small claims cases in the designated courtrooms at the Civil Complex Center. We have also heard hundreds of limited civil and small court claims appeals in C-3 as well as remote unlawful detainer, restraining orders, gun violence restraining orders cases in the Central Justice Center.
Our court is proud to be able to continue to serve the public during these challenging times. This unbelievable success is due the outstanding commitment of our judges, staff and excellent court leadership.