If you have court business to take care of in the South Bay you may have to put it off. The Santa Clara County Superior Court announced that it is temporarily closing public counters and limiting public access to courthouses because of the recent coronavirus surge. “Our Court is experiencing a significant number of employee absences, creating staffing shortages across all departments of the Court. We are hopeful that these circumstances are transitory and we will frequently reexamine conditions as we continue to serve the public through the pandemic and the current Omicron variant surge,” Presiding Judge Theodore Zayner said in a statement.
Advocates say the impact of closing off access to the courts hits many families deeply. “The consequence falls squarely on those that have the least power, the incarcerated and their families and communities. There’s always a level of skepticism about what happens in courts. Closing the doors will only elevate that,” Raj Jayadev with civil rights group Silicon Valley De-Bug told the Mercury News. Jayadev says outbreaks in jails and family visitation restrictions for jail inmates already in effect in Santa Clara County often push people to take plea deals that may be unfavorable.
“We’re housing people in conditions where they are highly exposed, at the same time we’re denying them access to the system," says former Santa Clara County prosecutor Steven Clark, speaking to the Mercury News. "There’s no good time to do this. This was the best of the worst times to do this. Hopefully, it’s short-lived.”
According to the announcement, the only people allowed inside the courthouse are those who are appearing in court and the other parties that generally follow like attorneys, witnesses, jurors, and others, depending on the case. People appearing to submit a plea in person can drop them in a dropbox and leave. There are also exemptions for domestic violence and family court cases. You can see the full list of restrictions on the court press release.
Santa Clara County has been forced to restrict access to the court and public counters two previous times during the pandemic, and it isn’t the only Bay Area jurisdiction that has been forced to enact a new round of restrictions due to the surging number of omicron cases. Alameda, San Mateo, and Contra Costa counties have all implemented emergency plans including the delay of jury trials for several weeks due to staffing struggles from the surge.