July 15, 2020 – The Kern County Superior Court has rescinded a problematic order used for months to block people from entering its courthouses, an important step in restoring the public’s First Amendment right of access to hearings and trials in one of California’s largest metropolitan areas.
Court officials in Bakersfield issued a new court order explicitly stating that members of the public will be admitted to proceedings in limited numbers, consistent with public health guidelines, following a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the First Amendment Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Southern and Northern California.
The organizations filed suit after documenting numerous examples of mothers and other loved ones of criminal defendants being denied access to judicial proceedings, in violation of state and federal law.
“We are optimistic that the Kern County Superior Court is now on the right path,” said FAC Executive Director David Snyder. “While the court still has some way to go, including ensuring audio or video access to proceedings, we are glad a problematic order will no longer stand in the way of the public’s First Amendment right to see or hear their courts in action.”
Kathleen Guneratne, a senior staff attorney at ACLU NorCal, said:
“Our clients were illegally shut out of their loved ones’ criminal proceedings. They were essentially asked to trust that their loved ones were being treated fairly by the criminal legal system, a system that Black and Brown people have legitimate reasons to question. We commend the Court for this important step in ensuring the public has access to proceedings. Secret prosecutions have no place in this country.”
The Superior Court’s new order reads:
“Members of the press and public will also be admitted to observe public proceedings in all courthouses, subject to public health physical distancing requirements and other health and safety guidelines and standards.”
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A previous version of the Standing Order issued on March 23 was unconstitutional and was used repeatedly to turn away members of the public who were given no remote alternative to in-person court access, as documented by the one dozen denials of public access detailed in court papers.
A federal judge earlier this month sided with FAC and the ACLU in issuing a temporary restraining order against the Kern County Sheriff’s Office to prevent unilateral denials of access at courthouse doors. While the judge didn’t impose an order on court officials, as the groups had requested, he left open the possibility that the groups could pursue one later if necessary.
The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern District of California in Fresno, is ongoing. The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers at the ACLU, FAC and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.