At the entrance to Monterey County Superior Court, security guards ask if you have a fever, cough or sore throat and if you’ve been tested positive in the past 14 days for Covid-19. They point an infrared thermometer at your forehead to take your temperature before they let you inside. Yellow tape on benches in the court hallways and in courtroom galleries marks where you can and can’t sit, and staff members and the public are expected to wear masks at all times.
There’s a seeming exception to that last rule, and it’s one that has riled up a group of local criminal defense attorneys: Several judges, the attorneys state in a letter sent to state Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and county Presiding Judge Julie Culver, have repeatedly taken the bench without wearing masks. And while the court has placed plexiglass barriers throughout the courthouse – including where judges sit while presiding – the nine attorneys who signed the letter say the plexiglass barriers “does not obviate the requirement to wear a mask.
“Every person in Monterey County is required to wear a face covering when working in any area visited by the public, regardless of whether any member of the public is present at the time,” the letter, sent Aug. 24, states. “Failure to wear a mask or other suitable face covering in an area visited by the public is a violation of Gov. [Gavin] Newsom’s order… and the order of the Health Officer of the County of Monterey.
“A judge who takes the bench without a mask is endangering the public,” the letter states. “The scientific evidence suggests that a single asymptomatic carrier of the coronavirus in a poorly ventilated room… can spread the virus throughout the room, regardless of any plexiglass barriers or six feet of separation.”
Court Administrative Officer Chris Ruhl says that in July, Los Angeles County Superior Court officials sought guidance on the issue from both the state Department of Justice and Department of Public Health.
The response, he says, was that in light of the judiciary’s special constitutional status, state health officials don’t construe their guidance regarding the use of face coverings “to limit judges’ inherent authority to ensure the safe and orderly conduct of proceedings in their own courtrooms.
“Not surprisingly, California courts are all over the board on this. Some have required judicial officers to wear masks and many – I would believe most – have not,” Ruhl says. “It’s a judgment call, and judges can reach different conclusions both in general and under specific circumstances.”
Defense attorney Phil Crawford, the lead signatory to that letter, says that aside from the issue of can, there’s an issue of should.
“We’re never going to create a situation that’s 100-percent safe, but I don’t think it sends a good message to have some judges decide they’re not going to wear masks, particularly when everyone else is required to do so,” Crawford says. “They’re the authority in the room and should be setting the tone and upholding the law.”