Civil Division 2020

There really isn’t much to report this year from Civil. Not much new or different. Same old, same old.

I wish!

Just as in all other parts of our lives, everything has changed and changed again in the Civil Department. And it will continue changing as we adapt to the new reality of providing access to justice in the COVID world. Nothing in my 22 years on the bench prepared me to manage through the unique obstacles to a functioning court process created by this pandemic. How do we issue emergency civil harassment restraining orders when the doors to the courthouse are closed? How do we review and rule on emergency ex parte motions when the parties can’t come into the courtroom? How do we reschedule the thousands of civil hearings that were vacated during the shutdown? How do we operate a procedurally fair hearing or trial when all parties are appearing remotely? How do we provide public access to those remote proceedings? Every day since our court closed on March 16, 2020 we have been wrestling with these and countless other tough questions.

We started the process of reopening by issuing Civil Emergency Local Rules that allowed us to handle some limited essential matters while the court remained physically closed to the public. As we have expanded services, these rules have been amended several times. I am certain that they will continue to be amended frequently in the coming months as we react to new developments related to the virus. Please make a habit of checking our website at least once a week to keep up to date on any changes that could affect your practice.

Early on during the shutdown we made the decision to prioritize the resumption of all civil calendars as soon as we could safely do so. This turned out to be extremely difficult to accomplish. Due to the pandemic, we had limited staff available to reset hearings that had been vacated and to set new hearings going forward. But by late May we were able to resume all civil hearings, including case management conferences and law and motion hearings. This was several weeks earlier than most courts around the state. Although we still have backlogs and delays, we are better able to address them because we resumed normal calendars relatively quickly. Thanks to our dedicated and hardworking courtroom clerks and staff that made all of this possible.

While all of our clerks have been doing an amazing job, we are still experiencing delays in getting papers filed and orders issued. Understandably, we have had COVID-related staffing issues. Because of social distancing requirements only a few windows can be opened to accept filings in the clerk’s office and only a few members of the public at a time can be let in the door. This has led to more documents being mailed to the court and left in the drop box. It takes substantially more time to process those documents, which has also led to backlogs and delays. Thank you all for your patience as we work through these issues.

Although our civil courtroom doors remain locked for most matters, the remote CourtCall hearings are working well under the circumstances. We have been able to establish a muted public “listen only” line through CourtCall for each department to provide public access to all of these hearings. We are also conducting settlement conferences and evidentiary hearings, including bench trials, via Zoom. The Zoom settlement conferences have been very effective. Judge Fannin has even figured out how to conduct two of them at the same time! As we all get more familiar with remote video technology, it is likely that it will be used for a variety of other civil proceedings.

Speaking of trials, as of this writing we have not conducted any civil jury trials since we reopened. That does not mean that we are unable to conduct civil jury trials, however. All of the cases set for jury trial have either settled or have been continued at the request of the parties due to COVID-related discovery delays. On most days we have plenty of jurors available and we have adequate staffing to conduct trials. When they do get started, civil jury trials won’t look much like what all of us are used to. Masks will be required for all trial participants. Social distancing will be strictly enforced, meaning that most of the jurors will watch the trial from the gallery. Parts or all of the trial may be conducted on Zoom. Witnesses may have to testify by video remote or through pre-recorded video. It will certainly be a new and challenging experience for everyone involved.

We are fortunate that we will have a fantastic group of civil judges to take on this challenge. Judge Baskin will be returning to civil in 2021, following his service as Presiding Judge. He will join me, Judge Fannin, Judge Weil and Judge Treat to form a group with more than 80 years of judicial experience. Finally, I’d like to thank Judge Burch, who will be returning to a criminal assignment after a year of excellent work handling both unlimited jurisdiction cases and all of our limited jurisdiction matters.

I’m hopeful that when I write this article next year everything in court and in our lives will be back to normal. In the meantime, thank you all for your patience, cooperation and support as we make our way through these very unusual times.