SAN FRANCISCO—The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, along with the First Amendment Coalition, Public Justice, and Silicon Valley De-Bug have monitored and advocated for public access to the Santa Clara County Superior Court since the court’s March 23 general order closing the court to the public and the press.
Neither the United States nor the California constitution permits secret court proceedings. The public and the press have the right to observe judicial proceedings. In light of less restrictive available alternatives such as livestreaming court proceedings or installing a public dial-in line, this curtailment of First Amendment rights cannot stand.
After sustained advocacy efforts by these groups, the Presiding Judge of the Santa Clara County Superior Court advised that as of Monday, April 27, 2020, there will be public access to all criminal proceedings by way of a listen-only public dial-in line, and they anticipate similar access to all civil proceedings by May 4, 2020.
"We commend the court for taking this action. Access to court is a pillar of our society and it matters now more than ever," said Kathleen Guneratne, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.
“We hope that they will build upon this action using existing technology to allow for family members and community members to participate in court proceedings virtually during the pandemic. In the wake of this crisis, these initial hearings are critical as a court’s decision to release someone from an overcrowded jail pending trial can now mean the difference between life and death,” said Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug.
Families and community members play a critical role in court processes, particularly in bail hearings, as they are often called upon by defense attorneys to verify information, such as residence or employment, and to show community ties.
Public access to court hearings is woven into the very fabric of our judicial system and self-government. The ACLU continues to monitor Northern California to ensure the public has meaningful access to courts, especially during times of crisis.