Public defenders rally against Santa Clara County court closures amid protests
More than 50 public defenders and others gathered Monday at the Santa Clara County Superior Court's Hall of Justice in San Jose to protest county court closures. Photo by Rachel Leven

More than 50 public defenders and others rallied against Santa Clara County court closures on Monday, following a weekend of heated protests in San Jose over police brutality, including the death of George Floyd.

Standing in front of the county Superior Court’s Hall of Justice with signs like “Close the jails, not the courts,” advocates said the court’s move unjustifiably limits the public’s right to a speedy trial. It further frays rights already diminished by the pandemic, they said, and is tantamount to “an act of violence.”

“The only access that people have when they have been victimized by the police — by police violence — is to get into this courthouse,” said Madelyn Roderigues, a public defender in San Jose. “This is the place that we get to stand up and show that body-cam footage and make their voice heard and show their injuries. This is the place.”

So far, the Monday closure delayed some hearings and other court activities anywhere from days to weeks, limiting people’s due process rights, said Sajid Khan, a public defender in San Jose. But it is also a symbolic problem, shutting down the judicial check on the police state as people are arrested during the protests, he said.

Presiding Judge Deborah Ryan said in a release the court was shutting down for safety reasons. When asked for further detail, Benjamin Rada, the courts’ spokesman, pointed to the related order, which mentioned safety concerns “based on the civil unrest in the County of Santa Clara … as well as information that other courthouses in the City of San Jose and the State of California have been subject to vandalism.”

It isn’t clear how long the court will remain shut down. So far, the court is only closed Monday, with no decision on future dates yet, Rada wrote.

The move comes days after the city of San Jose issued an emergency declaration and implemented a citywide curfew to address these protests. It’s also months into a pandemic that had killed 141 people in Santa Clara County as of May 31.

Public defenders protested county court closures on Monday, as people at the nearby jail cheered in solidarity. Photo by Rachel Leven

Property or people

Khan called for the court to release more information on what kind of safety issues the county courts are facing that make it necessary for them to close, including whether the courts had received direct threats.

“This is the exact moment in time where our courts need to be [expletive] open,” Khan said at the rally, amid cheers from the nearby jail and honking from cars driving by.

It isn’t clear how much this is impacting those arrested during the protests over Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police. The San Jose Police Department didn’t immediately respond to an email asking how many people have been arrested and how many are being detained linked to the protests.

Still, without more specific information about the safety concerns, advocates argued at the rally that the order appears to protect the elite in the judicial system at the cost of the most vulnerable, leaving the public to wait for their days in court.

Scott Largent, a 43-year-old community organizer who was arrested and released during this weekend’s protests, said that for his part, even though he was released and his hearing date isn’t until October, he finds the closure of the courts worrying.

“They’re concerned about protecting their property and their own people,” Largent said of the courts. “Not us.”

Contact Rachel Leven at leven.p.rachel@gmail.com or follow @rachelpleven on Twitter.

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