Santa Clara County’s Superior Court system is limiting foot traffic to its buildings and will not call new jury panels until next year in response to surging COVID-19 cases. But some say the action comes too late.
The court’s presiding judge, Deborah Ryan, said county government is doing all it can to keep people safe while also making sure the courts are still accessible. Ryan said courts need to stay at least partially open to protect children, crime victims and incarcerated individuals.
“The court continues to strike a balance between the right of access to justice and the health and safety of all of us in the community,” Ryan said.
Employees and those familiar with the courts say they feel safer with these orders but COVID-19 exposures remain a problem while contract tracing lags. In October and November, the Superior Court system was struck by multiple outbreaks of COVID-19 that left clerks feeling unsafe and at risk for contracting the deadly virus.
According to employee interviews and emails obtained by San José Spotlight, court supervisors in October and November did not follow rules for protecting workers who came into contact with other employees who were COVID-19 positive.
Since those outbreaks, some employees have been allowed to work from home on a rotating basis between one and three days per week to reduce the building’s capacity, and limit exposure.
Supervisors also have begun to send out daily emails to employees asking them to self-screen for COVID-19. If employees display symptoms, they are asked to go home immediately and contact a physician, according to one employee who did not want to be named for fear of retribution.
Still, several people have been exposed and contact-tracing emails are vague, employees say. Employees exposed to colleagues who tested positive for COVID-19 were not explicitly instructed to get tested or told to quarantine, according to a court clerk.
Because court employees were not yet identified as “close contacts,” this allowed the court to say it followed public health protocols, employees said.
Court employees will go on a holiday furlough Dec. 21 to Jan. 4, which reduces hours and operations throughout the system. The traffic courthouse is closed but a dropbox for documents is available outside at 1095 Homestead Road, Santa Clara.
Current public health orders dictate indoor capacity at government buildings be limited to 20% capacity. However, because the court is considered essential, capacity can exceed this limit to perform certain functions.
The new court procedures will require occupancy tracking, either by sheriff’s deputies at building entrances and exits, or by automation.
The court’s family division is requiring attorneys to handle hearings and status conferences remotely.
An attorney familiar with the courts said that in addition to court employees’ complaints, information about capacity restrictions and other COVID-19 safety measures was not distributed in a timely manner, jeopardizing the safety of anyone who enters court buildings.
Updated metering and capacity guidelines were issued Dec. 1 and again Dec. 7 across the court system in response to the county’s revised mandatory directives and stay-at-home order, issued Nov. 28 and Dec. 4, respectively.
Lisa Herrick, chief executive officer of Santa Clara County’s superior courts, told San José Spotlight the new orders had been sent to all staff across every department and contact tracing efforts are ongoing.
While the court does not have a sign-in sheet for those who enter its buildings, those who do visit in person are usually tracked by the minutes in various courtroom proceedings, making it possible for staff to keep track of who visits the building and when — information necessary for proper COVID-19 contact tracing.
According to Herrick, no jury trials are being held at this time.