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Los Angeles Superior Among Courts Across California to Close Temporarily Amid Coronavirus


California courts have begun delaying trials, with some of the largest courthouses in the state temporarily closing their doors for three days in an effort to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The Los Angeles Superior Court’s presiding judge issued an emergency order late tonight, declaring that the court will shutter for the next three days, thereby delaying specific trials. Judge Kevin C. Brazile announced that the state court — the largest single unified trial court in the U.S.will be closed to the public from March 17 through March 19, and will reopen March 20 for the limited purpose of handling only essential emergency matters.

“Let me be clear: we will continue to serve the needs of the most vulnerable people in Los Angeles County — our children, the elderly, domestic violence victims, people whose life and liberty interests are at stake, and in many other emergent cases as is possible and safe,” Judge Brazille said in the statement. “As the largest trial court in the nation, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County is methodically scaling back non-essential court operations as part of a phased approach,” Brazile said.

The Associated Press described the measures being taken throughout California courtrooms as necessary to “balance public safety with due process,” and noted that they could leave some cases “in limbo for weeks.”

Additionally, the Contra Costa County Superior Court is closing until at least April 1, and Superior Court in Orange County will not start new civil trials until at least May 1. The AP conformed earlier today that the “Supreme Court of California has suspended in-person oral arguments — instead, lawyers will appear remotely, through video, telephone or other electronic means.”

“All courts are working to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic and adjust to the quickly changing situation,” California Chief Justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, said via a statement on the court’s website. “Each court has different challenges and is working with local stakeholders to craft the best protections.”

The Los Angeles Superior Court’s closure is disrupting a number of specific cases that had hearings scheduled for Tuesday, some of which are rather high profile.

One such case involves Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, who is fighting a defamation suit brought by his girlfriend’s brother, Michael Sanchez. Sanchez is accusing Bezos and his security adviser, Gavin de Becker, of planting false information with media outlets to portray Sanchez as the source of sexually explicit texts between his sister and Bezos. The issue received wide attention from the national press last year after it was suggested the revelation of the texts contributed to Bezos’ separation from his ex-wife, MacKenzie Bezos.

The murder trial of multimillionaire New York real estate heir, Robert Durst, is another case affected by the court’s closure. Superior court judge, Mark E Windham, announced that the trial, which had been under way for six days and is expected to take at least five months, is adjourned until April 6.

Durst is on trial for the killing of his friend, Susan Berman, in her home in December 2000. Prosecutors argued in opening statements that Durst shot Berman because she knew Durst had killed his wife, who disappeared in 1982. Durst has repeatedly denied any responsibility for either death.

The courtroom closures and trial delays effectively leave the judicial process in the state if California in a place of alarm and confusion.

Earlier today, California’s Chief Justice issued statewide guidance to trial courts seeking emergency orders to adjust or suspend court operations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “California’s judicial branch is facing an unprecedented challenge with the COVID-19 virus,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “I recognize that this situation may require the temporary adjustment or suspension of court operations.”

State law allows local courts to request extended temporary restraining orders, to hold sessions elsewhere in the county, and to extend the time for a criminal trial to be held.

This is a developing story.