Criminal Courts 2020

“Everything will be okay in the end.
If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
–John Lennon

John Lennon had it right—if it’s not the end, then we must endure, keep our perspective in check, and continue to hope that things will get better.

Normally, this article would be devoted to case filings, assignments, and trial statistics. On March 16, 2020, however, normalcy was suspended with the closure of our court. Suffice it to say that in this COVID era, filings are down across the board, as are trials and preliminary hearings. Nearly all operations ceased until we could create both a Criminal Emergency Court and a Virtual Court so that we could continue to process matters that posed the greatest urgency.

The court remained closed to the public until May 26, 2020. In the interim, we received directives from the Contra Costa Health Department to assist in re-opening, which included requiring masks of anyone entering the courthouse, installing protective Plexiglas at witness stands and at the jury box in our courtrooms, providing hand sanitizers for the jury, spacing the jurors throughout the courtroom, providing a live feed of our trials to the public as only 23 people could be seated in the courtroom during sessions, placing stand-up sanitizers at each floor of the Bray Courthouse and at each end of the floors, and re-routing the staircase to provide one way up and one way down.
Additionally, only 50 jurors are summonsed at one time, which allows the court to socially distance the courtroom for hardships, and while the jurors return in staggered fashion, they seem to appreciate all the efforts the court has made to ensure their safety and that of court personnel. Worth noting is the fact that the juror turnout has been amazing, probably due to COVID “overload,” for lack of a better term.

Our trial judges have done a stellar job of managing trials given the difficult restrictions placed upon them: Judges Cope, Stark, Santos, Hardie, Scanlon, and O’Malley deserve our thanks for their efficiency and productivity. Our calendar departments, run by Judges Brady and Goldstein (felonies) and Judges Mockler and Rhyne (now working in Pittsburg) have managed to keep the cases flowing despite all the roadblocks newly presented to them.

As to the Pittsburg branch court, Supervising Judge Judy Johnson provides this update:

The Richard E. Arnason Justice Center is on par to match 2019’s court volume, despite being closed for two and a half months in 2020 due to the COVID-19 virus. Through June of this year, we conducted 1,413 arraignments. Our small claims, unlawful detainers and jury trials decreased substantially as the result of Supreme Court orders suspending these proceedings again because of pandemic protocols.

By August we were operating at full capacity, reducing our backlog of pending matters. Effective August 24th, Judge Wade Rhyne returned to Pittsburg, joining Judges Leonard Marquez and Wendy Coats and our new Commissioner Gina Dashman.

The Richmond branch court update, by Supervising Judge Christopher Bowen, includes the following:

Despite being “one judge down,” Richmond has held its own throughout 2020, keeping up with a busy schedule of jury trials, preliminary hearings, misdemeanor arraignments, domestic violence and civil harassment restraining order hearings, and small claims/traffic/unlawful detainer matters. The bench lineup includes Judges John Devine, Julia Campins, and Christopher Bowen and Commissioner Jennifer Lee.

During court closure, Richmond successfully implemented virtual misdemeanor pretrial and change-of-plea calendars that are popular with attorneys and litigants alike. As always, the staff in Richmond turned in a nearly flawless performance in setting (and re-setting) hundreds of civil and criminal matters during and after court closure. The challenges facing our court, our community, and our world notwithstanding, the George D. Carroll Courthouse continues to be a place where staff, attorneys, parties, jurors, other members of the public and bench officers love to be!

As to the Martinez calendars

In January, 2021, a big change will be coming to Criminal in the form of Direct Calendar. Judge Hardie, currently Assistant Presiding Judge, discusses that change in her article in this issue.
Relating back to the partial court closure, we need to extend a special thanks to all the judges who helped the court run as well as could be expected in a time of pandemic. As to our justice partners, thanks in the Emergency Court go to Brooks Osborne and Brandon Banks from the Public Defender’s office, Dominique Yancy from the District Attorney’s office, and Anthony Ashe, who handled the majority of matters for the Conflicts Panel. The Sheriff’s Department provided extra staffing to help move the cases along and we could not have operated as smoothly as we did without their assistance.
The same is true for the Virtual Court, which included the efforts of Chris Walpole from the District Attorney’s office, Rebecca Brachman of the Public Defender’s office, and Bill Green from the Conflicts Panel.

We could not have run these departments without the help of CEO Kate Bieker, Managers Diana Ghirardo and Sarah Passot, and all the other clerks who worked very hard in the most difficult time period we have seen in the court’s history.

Here’s hoping that next year, at this time, we’ll be back to reporting on case filings, assignments, and trial statistics. In the interim, stay healthy and safe!