Eviction defense attorney Nathaly Medina stood behind the acrylic glass shielding the judge from the lawyers and made the same standing objection she’s made in every in-person court hearing during the pandemic: It’s neither safe nor necessary to be here.

And the judge, Upinder S. Kalra of the Los Angeles County Superior Court’s Stanley Mosk Courthouse’s Department 91, gave her the same response she’s gotten every time from every judge: The court is taking every precaution to keep people safe while continuing the administration of justice.

In other words, keep coming to the courthouse for eviction trials, unless the parties can hash things out via the court’s remote appearances program.

Out of any court system in California, Los Angeles was always the most likely spot for conflict between those who want the court to forge ahead despite the pandemic and those who want to delay in-person proceedings until the county has widespread distribution of a vaccine. Los Angeles is the state’s busiest court system, by far, with nearly one-third of the state’s judges and more than 120,000 trials in the fiscal year 2018-19, the last year for which statistics were available. That’s more than one-third of all trials in California.

Low-income tenants facing eviction

Medina is part of a coalition of attorneys who represent low-income tenants facing eviction that are protesting mandatory appearances in court during the pandemic, calling them dangerous and inconsistent with public health rules.

“The court is not doing its part to flatten the curve and substantially prejudicing low-income tenants’ due process rights by forcing them to choose between their day in court and likely exposure to COVID-19,” the coalition wrote in a letter to Los Angeles County Superior Court’s presiding judge.

Across California, courts have acted like their own fiefdoms — with the consent of the state’s Judicial Council — in interpreting public health guidelines.

Remote criminal trails 

In Sacramento County, criminal trials continue but most are being conducted remotely while family law trials are taking place in-person. Eviction trials and mediations, like the one Medina attended Wednesday, are only being held via video conference.

In Monterey County, all court appearances are in-person.

In the Inland Empire, Riverside County has been conducting criminal trials in-person since June, but eviction filings are all done remotely. In San Bernardino County, most civil jury trials have been postponed until 2021.

Attorney Nathaly Medina, right, and her client, Lynn Byers, stand in front of the Stanley Mosk courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, on Dec. 2, 2020. Photo by Tash Kimmell for CalMatters

In L.A. County, Medina argued that the mandatory settlement conference violated the state orders against people from more than three families congregating in one place — she counted people from nine different families in court at about 10 a.m. Kalra replied that it was not much different from going to a grocery store. Kalra allowed CalMatters to observe the open parts of the hearing but not take notes or photographs.

“I don’t think he appreciated it. I think he was upset with me,” Medina said. “My goal is to make a fuss about it every single time and make a standing objection to it every time. Any of the litigants that don’t have attorneys, how are they going to know about a remote appearance?”

Hard to social distance in court

The coalition of eviction defense attorneys argues that there’s no way to safely distance while going among courtrooms or in and out of the courthouse. While the courtrooms themselves feature acrylic glass between the judge, bailiff, clerk and attorneys, the public is seated in every second or third chair with no shields.

CourtWatchLA has been documenting crowded conditions at Los Angeles Superior courthouses.

To get to court, Medina and her client had to walk through a short line outside the courthouse where people congregated in bunches and ignored the ground markings instructing them to stand 6 feet apart, into an elevator marked for four people without enough space for each to stand 6 feet from the other.

Signs in the courthouse instruct anyone with a fever to stay away, but there are no temperature checks at the doors to the courthouse or its courtrooms, which the court’s administration attributes to the ineffectiveness of temperature checks.

“The court has been advised by (the) Los Angeles County Department of Public Health that due to the high number of asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, temperature screenings are not an effective measure to screen for infected individuals,” a Los Angeles County Superior Court spokesperson told CalMatters in an email.

The court has had to tighten its rules before. On Nov. 23, Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin C. Brazile closed courthouses to anyone but “authorized persons” and said in a press release that despite distancing and mask mandates, “attorneys, litigants and others routinely remove their masks and fail to observe social distancing while in our courthouses.”

Taking precautions to ensure people’s safety

The Los Angeles Superior Court has taken multiple precautions to ensure people’s safety. The court has LACourtConnect, which allows people to make court appearances remotely in some instances. There are drop boxes outside the courthouse for filings and the court has changed jury selection by having 18 prospective jurors at a time go directly to courtrooms, rather than having 30-35 of them in one crowded jury assembly room.

The Stanley Mosk Courthouse also has plenty of signs: No Eating. Wear a mask. Stay 6 feet apart. Still, the county disclosed Friday that seven people have been confirmed by laboratory test to have been infected at the courthouse.

It’s a system not unlike a grocery store, its operation based on the delicate, contradictory balance between suspecting everyone of illness but trusting that they are not actively shedding the virus, with or without symptoms, even as coronavirus cases surges and California faces a projected shortage of ICU beds by Christmas Eve.

* This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.