By Mella Bettag and Evelyn Valerio
SAN FRANCISCO – The Vanguard News Group—whose Court Watch program covers county courts throughout California—Monday paid a visit to file a grievance with San Francisco County Superior Court for not making its courtrooms accessible through Zoom livestream technology as other counties have done during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite calls for court transparency, San Francisco Superior Court has continued to limit public access in their daily proceedings, said the group of nine Court Watch interns who visited the San Francisco Superior Court to request virtual court access and to observe the health precautions the Court was taking in order to make hearings accessible and safe.
Court Watch was told that the San Francisco courts are “working” to provide public access through livestream, but that was the same answer provided back in late April when THE VANGUARD first made a formal request for access to the courts under the 1st Amendment.
“We are present in your courtroom today, as members of the public and as Court Watch journalists who perform our civic duty by watching and reporting on the judicial system. During this deadly pandemic, we exercise our right to view public hearings virtually through Zoom technology, broadcast live on YouTube,” said David Greenwald, executive director of Court Watch and founder of THE VANGUARD, in a letter to the court.
“While Yolo, Sacramento, Merced, and Fresno County court proceedings are accessible through a YouTube livestream, the San Francisco Superior Court has not yet made hearings available to the public via YouTube.
“We are here today, despite the health risk it creates, to make a humble request that San Francisco Superior Court take action to broadcast court proceedings live on YouTube as soon as possible. This will allow us to exercise our rights, provide information to the public, and remain safe during this global health crisis,” Greenwald wrote.
In response to the request, Judge Loretta M. Giorgi reiterated that the livestream was being worked on, and that she would pass THE VANGUARD’s letter on to “IT” staff. Once again, no date was given for when the livestream would be ready
While attempted, many California health requirements are not being adequately achieved within San Francisco courtrooms, as observed by the Court Watch interns.
The Court Watch staff said, while observing visitors to the courthouse, that although San Francisco requires proper face coverings and social distancing, the courts didn’t observe this. There are also no temperature checks like there are in other superior courts.
The San Francisco Superior Court has continued to allow entrance of public visitors instead of following other counties in setting up remote livestreams, creating a dangerous situation within the courtrooms and a lack of accountability within the justice system.
For instance, although certain seats have been marked for those who are required to attend their hearings, the marked chairs do allow for proper social distancing as visitors stream in, but the spaces in between are filled. Throughout the morning’s hearings, there were approximately two dozen civilian onlookers, who overflowed into many of the unmarked seats.
Mask use was also far from perfect. Because masks are mandatory in the Hall of Justice, individuals have to wear them in order to enter the courtroom. But once inside, many people were not using masks properly, and in several instances, both public viewers and court employees were seen not covering their noses.
One female was speaking to an officer, and immediately removed her mask, exposing her mouth while she spoke. Others were heard sneezing and coughing in close proximity. The courtroom was without ventilation, proper social distancing, and mask use, reported the Court Watch group.
Because of these breaches of COVID-19-safe health procedure, attending San Francisco court in person puts one at an elevated risk, said the Court Watchers.
Despite this, the San Francisco Superior Courts have not created other access points for the public—unlike many other California counties, such as Fresno, Yolo, and Sacramento, San Francisco Superior court does not use livestream feeds that the public and news media can access safety.
Nearly two weeks ago, Court Watch interns made attempts to access San Francisco courtrooms virtually through Zoom codes, but were barred from the calls within a week. The court again claimed it was in the process of setting up a public livestream. No date was given for when said stream would be put into place.
“Courtrooms are supposed to be public,” said Greenwald, executive director of Court Watch. “We have a constitutional right to transparency and accountability, and we should be able to have it without endangering our health and safety” by attending live hearings in an unsafe environment.
THE VANGUARD “requests to exercise its public right to be present during criminal proceedings that take place within the San Francisco Superior Court system…due to the C-19 outbreak, there is no public access to any Court civil or criminal proceeding (and) no protocol in place for my client and members of the public to attend Court proceedings remotely,” wrote Paul Nicholas Boylan, legal counsel for THE VANGUARD late in April in the first appeal for transparency to SF Courts.
Boylan noted in his letter to Garrett L. Wong, Presiding Judge of the court, that his client is a news media outlet that reports on the courts and “advocates on behalf of the public in respect to the public’s right to access information.”
San Francisco County is not using this technology, or is not making it available to the public and news media, wrote Boylan, adding that the technology is “inexpensive and easy to effectuate.”
Boylan said that while “accessible video feed would be ideal..due to the ease of setting up a system where members of the public could listen in on hearings allows you to remedy the problems associated with denying the public access to criminal proceedings, my client insists and the public (it) serves, be provided the means to remotely access Court criminal hearings as they are taking place.”
Boylan’s letter mirrors a request by more than two dozen open governments groups last week that called on Congress to fund real-time remote access to federal court proceedings, so COVID-19 does not limit the public’s right to know activities inside federal courtrooms.
The letter was signed by 26 groups, including the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Campaign for Accountability, Center for Media and Democracy, Demand Progress, Government Accountability Project, Public Citizen, Society of Professional Journalists and Taxpayers for Common Sense.
In the letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. advocacy groups noted that “it is clear that much more is needed to protect the public’s access to information and strengthen meaningful oversight.”
The groups want Congress to promote court access because the pandemic has “severely impacted public access to court proceedings and records.” Most courts appear to have limited or even suspended public court operations—as the CA Superior Courts have done.
The groups are urging Congress to make it possible for the federal courts—as THE VANGUARD has requested of San Francisco County—to make courtroom actions visible to the public and press.
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