The California judicial branch ended its temporary COVID-19 emergency rules just a few months into 2022, as courts around the state worked to restore and maintain access to justice amid the continuing pandemic. But as 2023 approaches, California courts are not simply looking to return to prepandemic operations, but are focusing on technology implemented during the last few years to expand access and improve services for the public.
Judicial Branch Rolls Back Emergency Actions Taken During Pandemic
Effective April 30, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye rescinded her remaining statewide emergency measures established to address pandemic-related challenges to court operations. Those measures had included extensions of time for holding preliminary hearings in criminal cases and bringing civil cases to trial, as well as fast-tracking local court rules adopted to address the impacts of the pandemic.
A few months later, the Judicial Council sunset its pandemic-related statewide emergency rules still in effect, which had addressed personal appearance waivers by criminal defendants, as well as extended deadlines for litigants to file civil actions.
The decision to sunset the remaining emergency rules came after Gov. Newsom’s rollback of executive orders related to the state’s COVID-19 response, as well as courts’ increasing ability to accommodate the changes resulting from the pandemic.
Help for Courts Still Dealing With Pandemic-related Case Backlogs
Over the course of the year, California courts continued to make progress on COVID-related backlogs, and in many case types, they’re back to pre-pandemic levels of case disposition rates.
But for courts still working to clear backlogs and manage court operational issues, the Chief Justice instituted a new civil mediator program to make retired judges available to serve as mediators at no additional cost to the parties or courts. The new program builds upon three others initiated by the Chief Justice that use retired judges to help ease the pandemic’s effect on court operations.
In addition, the Judicial Council continued to support courts by advocating with the Legislature to allow the continued use of remote technology and to fund remote technology initiatives.
The Case for Expanding Remote Services and Proceedings
Assembly Bill 177 added section 367.9 to the Code of Civil Procedure, directing the council to convene a working group to make recommendations on how courts can use remote proceedings in civil cases while also providing equal access to the process for all participants.
The council received that report this month from the Code of Civil Procedure Section 367.9 Working Group. Among the recommendations, the group identified strong support for making remote proceedings available, but not mandatory, in all civil case types when:
- Courts, parties, and other participants have access to remote technology;
- Clear and private communication between parties and their attorneys is available; and
- Technology provides for clear communication between all participants and court interpreters.
Data collected for a companion report shows courts held more than 500,000 remote proceedings in civil matters over seven months and more than 96% of the feedback collected from those remote users noted favorable experiences.
Unprecedented Investment In State’s Judicial Branch
The fiscal year 2022-23 state budget included $1.2 billion in new funding for the judicial branch, supporting many longstanding priorities of Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and the Judicial Council to expand access to justice.
The budget contains money to help courts support the Governor’s CARE Act, which seeks to address defendants with untreated mental health and substance abuse challenges. The investments also went toward new judgeships, courthouse construction, offsets for lowering fines and fees for low-income Californians, expanding legal aid, and modernizing court technology.
Continued Modernization of Court Operations and Services
The council distributed $12.5 million from this year’s state budget to continue modernizing trial court operations, improving online and remote services, and increasing access to justice for the public.
Ongoing state funding for court technology has expanded voice-to-text translation in clerks and self-help offices, electronic filing, hearing reminders via text, online access to court records, and other technology services.
- The Virtual Customer Service Center pilot on the judicial branch’s online self-help portal has processed 65,000 chatbot questions from 46,000 visitors about small claims, name changes, and family law since March 2021, and has also served 4,200 live chat users—the service will soon be available on local court websites and be expanded to handle eviction, traffic, and fee waiver questions.
- The Placer Superior Court pilot of the branch’s Hearing Reminder Service sent out nearly 20,000 reminders so far—by this fall, 8 trial courts will be using the service, which provides an option for reminders in Spanish, with 4 more languages coming soon
Courts Using Data to Improve Services
In May, nearly 200 California court leaders and research staff came together to focus on how data can help shed light on operational challenges and solutions, and ultimately improve court services for the public.
The event, hosted both in-person and virtually by the council, was the next step in the judicial branch’s work to build a statewide court community around data management and analytics. Participants heard how data can inform decisions on such issues as judge coverage, jury duty, and self-help services.
Building on that momentum, the council recently established a Data Analytics Advisory Committee, which will analyze and share data to better inform judicial branch decision making and enhance public access to court data and information.
California Courthouse Sustainability
Responsible for maintaining more than 21 million square feet of space in roughly 450 facilities statewide, the California courts unveiled a plan for achieving climate sustainability by reducing energy use, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and moving to 100% “clean energy.”
One strategy deployed to reach these goals included replacing existing fluorescent lighting at courthouses with energy-efficient LED lighting. By February of this year, the judicial branch had:
- Retrofitted the lighting in 38 courthouses
- Saved $1.5 million in annual electricity costs
- Reduced 2,306 tons in annual carbon dioxide emissions
The council also retro-commissioned the main courthouse in Madera, and expects to reduce annual electrical usage by 126,866 kilo-watt-hours, enough to power 13 single-family houses in a year, as well as reduce natural gas use by nearly 14,000 therms, enough to heat 30 single-family homes in a year. The council is evaluating options for leveraging utility incentives for further retro-commissioning work on other facilities.
The council is also installing automation systems to better regulate and track energy use at individual courthouses.
California Courts Help Establish Native American State Holiday
State judicial branch and local court employees were the first public workers to celebrate “California Native American Day” as an official California state holiday, thanks to AB 855, authored by Assemblymember James C. Ramos (D-Highland) and co-sponsored by the Judicial Council.
The legislation did not create an additional paid holiday for judicial branch employees, but exchanged Columbus Day for California Native American Day, which will be celebrated yearly by judicial employees on the fourth Friday in September.
State Strives for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The California Judicial Mentor Program is a statewide undertaking between the executive and judicial branches to create an inclusive judiciary by fostering the development of a qualified and diverse judicial applicant pool that reflects California’s diverse population. Judicial demographics surveys conducted annually over the last 16 years shows the number of female judicial officers has grown to nearly 40%, while the percentage of Asian, Black, and Hispanic judicial officers has doubled.
Additionally, the Judicial Council earlier this month received the final report and recommendations resulting from a statewide Judicial Diversity Summit, which brought together representatives from the council, courts, and 15 affinity judicial and bar associations. The recommendations call for increasing education for attorneys from underrepresented communities about the judicial appointments process, continuing judicial outreach to K-12 schools, strengthening mentoring programs for judicial officers interested in court leadership positions and appointments to higher courts, and expanding the collection of demographic data on the California judiciary by adding a nonbinary category for gender.
Further, the council this year approved an update to the Strategic Plan for California’s Judicial Branch, making explicit the branch’s commitment to leverage diversity to foster an inclusive court system in which all individuals are—and feel—respected and engaged, and their contributions are valued.
Judicial Branch Honors Individuals for Outstanding Service
The Judicial Council honored five recipients with its 2022 Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes people and organizations for their extraordinary leadership and contributions to the administration of justice in California.
This year’s recipients—Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte (Ret.), Judge Joyce Hinrichs, Court Executive Officer Sherri R. Carter, Court Executive Officer Nancy Eberhardt, and Fiscal Policy Advisor Diane Cummins—were honored for their respective work related to improve judicial diversity, leading courts through the COVID-19 pandemic, driving court-based innovations to better serve the public, and helping to shape a stable funding system for the state’s judicial branch.
In addition, Judge Bobbi Tillmon received the 2022 Aranda Access to Justice Award, which honors a judge’s commitment to improving, and promoting fairness and access to, the courts, especially for low-and moderate-income Californians. The California Lawyers Association presents the award in partnership with the Judicial Council and California Judges Association, and in association with the California Commission on Access to Justice.
Watch these videos to learn about all of this year's award recipients:
In July, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye announced she would not seek re-election as Chief Justice of California in the November election and would conclude her current term, after 32 years of service at every level of the state courts.
As the 28th Chief Justice of California, she is the first person of color and the second woman to serve as the state’s chief justice. During her 12-year term, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye successfully advocated for: reforms of court funding models, fees, and procedures that unfairly impact the poor; adequate, sustainable funding for court operations; diversity and inclusion in the legal profession; and the role of civic education and engagement in sustaining public trust and confidence in the judicial system. This tribute video was presented at the December Judicial Council meeting.
New Chief Justice Confirms Her Commitment to Civics Education
In August, the Commission on Judicial Appointments confirmed Justice Patricia Guerrero’s nomination as Chief Justice of California. After her approval by voters in the November election, she will now become the new Chief Justice of California starting January 2, 2023.
Before her elevation to Chief Justice-elect, Guerrero was sworn in as the newest associate justice of the California Supreme Court in March of this year, becoming the first Latina to serve on the state's high court. Besides hearing oral argument the very next week, one of the first things Guerrero did as the newest Supreme Court justice was volunteer for an interview with members of PressFriends, an all-volunteer nonprofit that works with elementary school students in high-need areas to improve their writing and communication skills. Justice Guerrero also participates in the statewide Judges in the Classroom program.
Continuing her commitment to civics education, Chief Justice-Elect Guerrero attended a recent civics summit in Sacramento, where she met with students and told them about her path to the bench and her role as a member of the state’s high court. The summit brought together more than 150 educators, students, parents, and judges who stressed the importance and power of civic learning and encouraged students to be the change in their communities.
Council Administrative Director to Retire
In addition to Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye, the Judicial Council’s Administrative Director Martin Hoshino will also leave his position at the end of the year. Hoshino has served as the council’s administrative director since 2014, capping a more than 35-year career in public service.
Earlier this year, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye honored Hoshino with the Chief Justice Award for Exemplary Service and Leadership. She described Hoshino as a “dedicated and talented public servant” who has helped advance "historic change to promote equal access to justice for the people of California.”
Stay connected in 2023 by subscribing to the California Courts Newsroom and Twitter feed. (See bottom of this page for links)