On Monday, June 29, the FAC and the American Civil Liberties Foundations of Southern and Northern California asked a federal judge to order officials in Kern County to immediately enforce the public’s First Amendment right of access to hearings and trials. The request for a temporary restraining order came as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit the groups filed after documenting more than a dozen instances of members of the public being denied access to the Kern County Superior Court. At a hearing today, U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd of Fresno granted the motion in part, halting sheriff’s deputies and any other security personnel who guard the entrances of the courthouses from unilaterally denying public access.
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, made the following statement:
“Access to Kern County Superior Court is finally opening up, after many weeks of people being turned away at the courthouse steps. FAC is grateful to Judge Drozd for carefully considering the important First Amendment right of access and putting court officials on notice that the pandemic doesn’t mean the end of constitutional rights.
“We filed suit because the Superior Court had adopted an unconstitutional order that courthouse security used to turn people away, preventing members of the public from exercising their right to oversee the court system operating in their name.
“This ruling means it’s now a violation of a federal judge’s order if court security do not take reasonable steps to admit members of the public to court proceedings by notifying the judicial officer of the request for access.
“The Superior Court is in this position, in part, because it failed to implement meaningful alternatives such as telephonic access or livestreaming, as many other courts—smaller, larger and everything in the between—have done since the pandemic made unfettered court access impossible. We are confident that court officials will move quickly to ensure alternative access is available.”
Kathleen Guneratne, senior staff attorney at the ACLU NorCal who argued the motion, made the following statement:
“I am grateful and relieved that our clients, including mothers denied access to their sons’ trials, should now be able to get into these life-altering hearings. We are hopeful that the Superior Court and the Sheriff’s office are on the right track and sincere about ensuring the public’s First Amendment right to observe court is protected during this pandemic. We look forward to working with the court and sheriff to come up with an achievable plan to ensure meaningful public access. There is no room, and no excuse, for secret proceedings in our country.”
Judge Drozd issued his ruling from the bench and indicated no written order would follow. In denying part of the motion, he left open the option for the ACLU and FAC to again seek intervention if “failures to provide access are not adequately addressed.”
The plaintiffs are represented by in-house counsel and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP. The case, in the Eastern District of California, is 20-cv-00889.