Public Defender Petitions Supreme Court over Trial Delays

In the Supreme Court of CaliforniaMiguel Angel Estrada, Petitioner, v.The Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco, Respondent; The People, Real Party in Interest. Andrew Kuhaiki, Petitioner, v. The Superior Court of the City and County of San Francisco, Respondent; The People, Real Party in Interest. PETITION FOR REVIEW of the decision of the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District Division One, Nos. A166474, A166508

 Summary: Following the covid-19  lockdown, the San Francisco Superior Court reopened all of its criminal  trial courtrooms in June 2021. However, during  the thirteen months that followed, it operated these courtrooms at only 56 percent capacity. And in mid-2022, trial courtrooms  we’re closed on 176 occasions due to judges’ vacations, which  had become the leading cause for closed courtrooms. The superior court’s backlog grew by forty percent since reopening. The superior court held that the covid-19 pandemic justified continuing petitioners’ trials past their statutory deadlines in July and August 2022. On the days of the continuances,  multiple courtrooms were closed because of judges’ vacations and routine absences.  In denying a petition filed by the San Francisco Public Defender, thd Court of Appeal upheld the good cause finding.

Public Defender Files for Review in Supreme Court

In requesting review by the Supreme Court the Public Defenders cited Rhinehart v. Municipal Court (1984) 35 Cal.3d 772, 783, where the California Supreme Court held that a single judge’s vacation is not good cause to continue a trial  past its statutory deadline under Penal Code section 1382. And in People v. Engram (2010) 50 Cal.4th 1131, 1158, this Court held that a superior court may not shortchange its criminal docket by allocating an inadequate number of courtrooms to criminal trials.

The Public Defender argued that good cause was even more glaring than in Rhinehart and Engram, since multiple judges were away on vacation over a period of months, and the court was using only a small fraction of its resources on criminal trials.

The Public Defender urged the Court to grant review to restore uniformity of decision on how to interpret Penal Code section 1382’s “good cause”  requirement, to reaffirm that “exceptional circumstances” do not  include chronic congestion, improper court administration and judicial vacations, and to address the important issue of the growing trial backlog in San Francisco. The Public Defender argued that this is a needed opportunity to clarify California law on the statutory speedy trial right.

Issue Presented

Whether the covid-19 pandemic was good cause to continue petitioners’ trials past their statutory deadline under Penal Code section 1382 in July and August 2022, where the court had fully reopened its trial courtrooms more than a year beforehand but had operated them at only 56 percent capacity, judicial vacations caused trial courtroom closures on 176 occasions over the previous four months, and trial courtrooms were empty due to judicial vacations on the days the cases were continued.

Court of Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal had denied relief, find8nv the empty courtrooms “startling and troubling” in light of the backlog, but held that they were not fatal to the good cause finding. It  held that stringent public health restrictions between March 2020 and June 2021 justified trial continuances during that period. And only a few weeks had passed from reopening to the continuances of the petitioners’ cases. Further, it  noted that, in September 2021, the majority of backlogged cases had last days that fell “during the 15-month period of constrained courtroom operations caused by the pandemic”.

While acknowledging the fundamental nature of  the speedy trial right, and agreed that “respondent court cannot turn to the pandemic and ‘perpetually cite “exceptional circumstances” to avoid dismissal under section 1382.”  It warned: “At some future point, should respondent court’s backlog persist while courtrooms remain dark and unused for long stretches of time, a backlog that originated with the pandemic could transform into one that persists or grows due to court administration, or the nonuse of available judicial resources.”  It added: “Here, we only decide that on August 16, September 2, and September 24, [2021], that point was not reached, and we decline to adopt any outside time limitation or metric that establishes such a point.”

The superior court leaves half its trial capacity unused for thirteen months, and lets trial courtrooms sit empty because of judicial vacations

In the thirteen months after reopening in June 2021, the superior court left trial courtrooms half-empty. On an average day from July 2021 through July 2022, just six courtrooms were holding trials—less than ten percent of the court’s total complement of sixty-five departments. Throughout this time, the superior court repeatedly delayed trials past their statutory deadline, using a standard sixteen-page “good cause” order that cited the covid-19 pandemic as the reason for the backlog and blamed criminal defendants for demanding jury trials in greater numbers. The court’s records showed that between April 1 and August 8, 2022, the biggest factor for empty courtrooms was not covid-19, but judicial vacations.The Court of Appeal’s decision, the PublicDefender argued, is contrary to Rhinehart, a case in which this Court held that routine congestion and judicial vacations are not good cause for continuing a criminal trial past its last day under Penal Code section 1382. (Rhinehart, supra, 35 Cal.3d at p. 783.)

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