The 2020 global pandemic has brought many rapid changes to the world – and that includes changes to courtrooms and trial across California.
COVID-19 has wrought havoc on our court system here in California, forcing many cases (other than the most urgent and life-threatening) to grind to a halt, for months. Now, both state and federal courts in California are adjusting to a “new normal” – how to live and function with an unpredictable, highly contagious and virulent aerosolized virus that at a minimum, mandates social distancing of 6 feet between people indoors (even with face masks and ample hand washing and hand sanitizer) to ensure the health and well-being of all. The impact on civil litigation – which traditionally has required sitting in close quarters with many strangers, during depositions, court hearings, and trials – has been and remains profound.
In the Northern District of California Federal Court, the backlog of cases is such that no civil jury trials will be held until after September 20, 2020. Any trials set to commence before then will be postponed or vacated. Individual judges may offer bench trials in lieu of postponement – but, those bench trials will be held via videoconference. While after July 1, 2020, some criminal jury trials will be permitted (at the Court’s discretion), appearances before the District Judges may continue to be waived or postponed – or, if required, hearings and bench trials will be conducted by telephone or videoconference. See General Order No. 74 and General Order No. 72-4.
Fortunately, California legislators were a bit ahead of the curve. Even before the pandemic forced the shutdown of many court systems and put innumerable civil cases into an indefinite “holding pattern,” legislation was introduced to the California Senate that would enable depositions to be taken by telephone and/or by videoconference – thus ensuring that civil cases could continue notwithstanding the need to maintain social distancing and/or “work from home” in order to protect public health concerns.
Senate Bill 1146 will survive well beyond COVID-19 – and it is a welcome addition to the California legal system, as it will enable discovery to take place throughout the state (and elsewhere in the U.S.) without the need for unnecessary travel and expense of an in-person deposition. All litigants will benefit from this cost-saving measure. See SB 1146 here.