Agreement Comes in the Wake of a Lawsuit by the ACLU and First Amendment Coalition
BAKERSFIELD — The Kern County Superior Court has agreed, in the settlement of a lawsuit, to provide in-person access to court proceedings that had been cut off during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also agreed to provide remote audio access to proceedings.
The court had banned public access to the point where many of its proceedings were conducted nearly in secret. But other courts across the nation had successfully found ways — including audio and video feeds — to provide access. In Kern County, however, even family members were turned away from courthouses and not given options to monitor proceedings.
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundations of Southern and Northern California, and the First Amendment Coalition filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fresno against Kern County for denying court access in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP was also co-counsel.
Today the lawsuit against the Superior Court was dismissed in light of the settlement agreement.
“The First Amendment requires that the public have access to all but a small number of confidential court proceedings,” said Peter J. Eliasberg, chief counsel of the ACLU SoCal. “COVID did not alter that principle, even if it required that courts be creative in finding ways to provide alternatives to in-person access. This settlement agreement ensures that the Kern County Superior Court will live up to its constitutional obligation to the public.”
The agreement calls for the Kern County Superior Court to provide “alternative access to all non-confidential proceedings via audio live streaming.” It also states that several divisions and multi-division county courthouses — including the Metro Division, Metro Traffic Division, and courthouses in Delano, Lamont, Mojave, Ridgecrest, and Shafter — will allow in-person access in accord with proper social distancing.
Janie Randle was a plaintiff in the case. She had been denied access to several of her son’s court hearings. “I need to be in the courtroom to keep an eye on what the court and the prosecutor, are doing,” Randle said. “I want to ensure that no one takes advantage of an empty courtroom to railroad my son.”
The agreement also states that representatives of the ACLU SoCal and the First Amendment Coalition can enter and attend any nonconfidential court hearings at the Metro Justice Building and Juvenile Justice Center, both of which are in Bakersfield.
“For too long, Kern County’s courts operated in a shroud of secrecy, contrary to the requirements of the First Amendment,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Secret court proceedings are anathema to our system of government, and so we are grateful that they once again are open to the people of Kern County.”
Read the settlement agreement here: https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/2020-12-14_fully_executed_aclu_v_harber-pickens_settlement_agreement_w_court.pdf
Read the June 2020 lawsuit here: https://www.aclusocal.org/sites/default/files/aclu_socal_v_harber-pickens_20200626_complaint.pdf