Court Accused Of Blocking Public Access To Trials Amid Virus

By Kevin Penton
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Law360 (June 29, 2020, 11:30 AM EDT) -- A California court is violating the First Amendment by placing undue restrictions on the public for accessing judicial proceedings during the COVID-19 pandemic, the American Civil Liberties Union has alleged in California federal court.

It should not be up to members of the press or the general public to demonstrate "good cause" for accessing civil and criminal proceedings conducted by Kern County Superior Court, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California alleged Friday in a complaint filed with the Eastern District of California.

The court has restricted even family members from attending in-person proceedings, and has denied members of the public the ability to remotely observe matters being conducted through video, according to the complaint filed by the ACLU and several individuals who contend they are impacted by the policy.

Kern County Superior Court should follow the example of other counties in the state by providing alternative ways for the public to access court proceedings, such as by providing publicly available call-in numbers, according to the complaint, which was filed against the local court's executive officer and other officials.

"A cornerstone of our democracy is that we do not conduct secret prosecutions," the complaint reads. "Defendants are currently doing just that."

The individuals who joined the ACLU in filing the suit include Lotisha Davidson, Tameca Spriggs, Janie Randle and Tanisha Brown, who allege they have been denied access to their respective sons' criminal proceedings. The ACLU itself alleges that its employees who routinely watch court proceedings have also been denied access, according to the complaint.

The ACLU and the individuals seek that the Eastern District of California declare that the local court's policy violates the First Amendment and for temporary and permanent injunctions barring the practices, according to the complaint.

"Now is not the time to ask the public to simply trust that system is fair, impartial and just," said Kathleen Guneratne, an attorney representing the ACLU, to Law360 on Monday.

Kern County Superior Court does not comment on pending litigation, Kristin Davis, a spokeswoman for the court, told Law360 on Monday.

The ACLU and the individuals are represented by Kathleen Guneratne and Amy Gilbert of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, David Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition and Peter Eliasberg and Jordan Wells of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Counsel information for the Kern County Superior Court officials was not immediately available on Monday.

The case is American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California et al. v. Harber-Pickens et al., case number 1:20-cv-00889, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California.

--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.

Update: This story has been updated with more information from the complaint, with a comment from an attorney representing the ACLU, and with a decline to comment by a Kern County Superior Court official.

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