Civil liberties groups filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging that the Kern County Superior Court has illegally denied the public and news media constitutionally required access to legal proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The suit in the U.S. District Court in Fresno asserts local officials have barred people including criminal defendants' family members from witnessing hearings and other court proceedings in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It asserts civil court proceedings also have been inappropriately closed to the public.
Other courts have provided public access during the pandemic by employing teleconferencing technology. Plaintiffs in the case say the Superior Court also has done so but only on a limited basis.
The suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the First Amendment Coalition and five family members of criminal defendants. It names as defendants Kern County Superior Court Executive Officer Tamarah Harber-Pickens, Presiding Judge Judith K. Dulcich and Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
A senior staff attorney with the ACLU in Northern California said in a news release that denying public access to court amounts to a secret proceeding.
"No one can have confidence that a court proceeding is fair if no one can watch,” stated the attorney, Kathleen Guneratne.
Plaintiff Janie Randle, whose son has been charged with attempted murder, said in a declaration for the lawsuit that it's unfair she cannot watch her son's court proceedings.
“The Bakersfield mall is now open, as are some casinos in the county,” Randle stated. “I do not understand why it is OK to open up casinos but we cannot go into the courthouse."
A Superior Court spokeswoman declined to comment on pending litigation.
The Sheriff's Office didn't respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for the Judicial Council of California said by email the organization hasn't provided statewide guidance to local courts on how to ensure public access to legal proceedings during the pandemic. He noted courts in Alameda, Humboldt, Orange and Sacramento counties stream video coverage of legal proceedings over the internet.
The lawsuit says Dulcich began denying public access to court proceedings on March 23 and that she's left the order in place despite the resumption of jury trials that were suspended March 24.
It says the Superior Court has denied requests to lift the order and the sheriff's department has continued enforcing it.
The court's website says members of the public and news media may attend hearings in person as long as they wear face masks, observe social distancing and apply for permission from the court.
"In practice, however, defendants have repeatedly denied members of the public and family members of those who are arrested access to the court," the lawsuit states.
The suit refers to a sign posted outside the main courthouse in downtown Bakersfield as recently as June 18 stating, "If you are not an attorney, party, defendant or subpoenaed witness you should not enter the courthouse and you should return home and follow the governor's (stay-home) order."
The lawsuit cites several instances in which people were allegedly denied access to legal proceedings that would normally be open to the public.
In one case Monday, it says, an attorney for the plaintiffs was denied remote access to jury selection proceedings despite the availability of a livestream. The suit says such proceedings have been ruled public.