Skip to main content

COVID News Center:

Statewide emergency actions and updates on county court services and operations here

Feature

Year in Review: California Supreme Court

Highlights and key statistics from the 2019-2020 court year.
Sep 30, 2020
In 2020, the California Supreme Court joined Twitter. 
Follow @CASupremeCourt for real-time opinions and news. 

COVID-19: A New Normal


The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented changes to the state judiciary. For the California Supreme Court, one of the most significant transformations was hearing oral argument remotely for the first time in its history.

The court in April hosted its first oral argument by videoconference, allowing justices and attorneys to participate safely from their homes or offices. (The court has webcast oral arguments live, with English and Spanish captioning, since 2016.)

In less than a month, Supreme Court Clerk/Executive Officer Jorge Navarrete and his staff, along with a Judicial Council IT team, had the court up and running on the new virtual platform and hosted a “dry run” with justices and counsel to ensure oral argument ran smoothly.

The court also implemented other changes to conventional practices in response to the pandemic—including temporarily extending filing deadlines and making electronic filing mandatory in all cases except those involving self-represented litigants. The court had first launched mandatory electronic filing for several case types in 2017, a transition that allowed the court to rapidly scale up during the pandemic.

See behind the scenes as the court unveiled virtual oral argument:

 


Justice Ming Chin Retires
    Justice Ming Chin in chambers.


The court saw a major change to its bench when Ming W. Chin, its longest serving sitting justice, retired on August 31. During Justice Ming Chin’s nearly 25 years on the high court, he authored more than 350 majority opinions and more than 100 separate opinions.

Justice Chin penned landmark decisions in areas such as DNA, toxic tort insurance coverage, surrogate parenting, spousal abuse, and hate crimes.

He also played a significant role on California’s Judicial Council and chaired the council’s technology advisory committee for 10 years, promoting advances that have helped the judicial branch address challenges presented by the COVID-19 epidemic.

He has been an avid proponent of continuing education for lawyers and judges, increasing diversity within the legal profession, preserving judicial independence, and addressing bias within the legal system. He is a frequent lecturer on these, and other topics, to groups around the world, and has gained global recognition as an expert on DNA evidence and employment law.      

Watch the virtual tribute given by Justice Chin’s colleagues during his last oral argument:

 


The Work of the Court
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Carol Corrigan in masks and distanced on the bench.

The California Supreme Court issued 77 majority written opinions during the September 2019–August 2020 court year (see "High-Profile Cases" below).

The court considered 6,455 filings, including 3,682 petitions for review from California’s six appellate court districts.

The court acted on an average of 170 matters at each petition conference, typically held three times each month. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the justices have held these meetings by conference call.


Major Changes to California Bar Exam


The global health crisis scuttled plans for thousands planning to take the California Bar Exam in July. In announcing plans instead for an October test administered online, the court also made a permanent reduction to the passing score.

The court further directed the State Bar to expedite creation of a supervised provisional licensing program for 2020 law school graduates—effective until they can take and pass a California Bar Exam. The provisional license will expire no later than June 1, 2022.

In making these changes the court acknowledged: "The changing circumstances surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in California, and throughout the country, have had an unprecedented impact on professional licensure testing for graduates seeking admission to many professions." The court recognized that "[m]any law school graduates are being substantially affected by the resulting disruption."


Jury Workgroup Launched


In January, the court announced it would form a new Jury Selection Work Group. The court charged the work group with assessing possible reforms to guard against impermissible discrimination in jury selection and better ensure juries represent a cross-section of their communities. 

In July, the court tapped 11 judges and justices for the work group. Five attorneys also serve as advisory members.  

The court also joined the national conversation concerning racial justice by issuing a public statement acknowledging the “legacy of past injustices inflicted on African Americans persists powerfully and tragically to this day.” The justices further wrote:

In our profession and in our daily lives, we must confront the injustices that have led millions to call for a justice system that works fairly for everyone. . . . Each member of this court, along with the court as a whole, embraces this obligation."


High-Profile Cases
  • The court unanimously invalidated legislation that sought to exclude candidates in presidential or gubernatorial primary elections from the California ballot unless they disclose five years of income tax returns (Patterson v. Padilla).
     
  • In a case regarding public employee pension benefits, the court unanimously upheld restrictions on “pension spiking” practices. But it left intact the “California Rule,” which generally entitles public workers to pension benefits in effect when they were hired, and to other benefits added before retirement, unless reductions are offset by additional benefits (Alameda County Deputy Sheriff’s Association v. Alameda County Employees’ Retirement Association).
     
  • The court unanimously reversed the death penalty sentence, but affirmed the guilty conviction, in People v. Peterson. The court held the trial judge improperly dismissed jurors who said they personally disagreed with the death penalty but would be willing to impose it.
     
  • The court ordered part of a landmark Court of Appeal bail ruling to become binding authority, compelling judges to consider, when setting bail, a defendant’s ability to pay as well as nonfinancial conditions of release such as electronic monitoring. The Court of Appeal’s decision in In re Humphrey is pending review by the Supreme Court.
     
  • In light of anticipated federal delay in producing census data on which each state’s electoral maps are based, the court granted emergency relief extending constitutional and statutory deadlines for the state Citizens Redistricting Commission to submit congressional and state legislative maps for the 2022 election (Legislature v. Padilla).
     
  • In Abbott Laboratories v. Superior Court, the court expanded the type of relief that county district attorneys can obtain on behalf of California consumers, allowing not only statewide injunctions under California’s unfair competition law, but also civil penalties for violations occurring outside the district attorney’s county.
     
  • The court considered and denied several emergency petitions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including:
     

All oral argument session videos and opinions from the 2019-2020 court year can be viewed here.


Summary of Key Court Year Statistics

[September 1, 2019August 31, 2020]

Action/Category

Number

Opinions 77
     Civil Cases 38
     Criminal Cases 22
     Death Penalty Cases 17
Filings 6,455
Petitions for Review 3,682
     Civil Appeals & Writs 1,000
     Criminal Appeals & Writs 2,679
     Death Penalty Appeals & Writs 3
Original Proceedings 2,773
     Civil Writs & Other Matters 208
     Criminal Writs & Other Matters 1,803
     Executive Clemency 26
     Death Penalty Appeals & Writs 8
     Death Penalty Habeas Corpus 19
     State Bar Matters 709
Dispositions 6,558
Petitions for Review 3,738
     Civil Appeals & Writs 1,003
     Criminal Appeals & Writs 2,730
     Death Penalty Appeals & Writs 5
Original Proceedings 2,820
     Civil Writs & Other Matters 218
     Criminal Writs & Other Matters 1,837
     Executive Clemency 13
     Death Penalty Habeas Corpus 27
     Death Penalty Habeas Corpus [Transferred] 19
     State Bar Matters 706
Death Penalty Habeas Corpus Matters to Show Cause 6
Court of Appeal Opinions Ordered Published 0
Court of Appeal Opinions Ordered Depublished 28

 

Images