BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — The American Civil Liberties Union and the First Amendment Coalition filed a lawsuit today against Kern County Superior Court officials alleging that the public has been unconstitutionally barred from court proceedings.
While in-person access was limited at many courts across the state and nationwide because of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts have still provided video or audio feeds of court proceedings. However, the lawsuit says that in most cases in Kern County, even family members were turned away from courthouses and not given options for remote access.
The lawsuit was filed with the U.S. District Court in Fresno. Kristin Davis, the public affairs officer for the Kern courts system, said the Superior Court could not comment as it is pending litigation.
“Even one secret proceeding is one too many,” said Kathleen Guneratne, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. “Kern County should immediately stop denying family members their First Amendment right to attend court hearings. No one can have confidence that a court proceeding is fair if no one can watch.”
Janie Randle, who is one of several plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she was denied access to court hearings in Bakersfield concerning her son, who is accused of attempted murder.
“The Bakersfield mall is now open, as are some casinos in the county,” she said in a declaration for the lawsuit. “I do not understand why it is okay to open up casinos but we cannot go into the courthouse. That fact that people can gamble but I can’t watch my son’s court hearings is not right.”
Another plaintiff, Tanisha Brown, said she was turned away when she tried to observe a June 10 hearing in the case against her son, who was arrested during a rally in Bakersfield protesting police brutality against Black people.
“During this period of intense police violence and misconduct, it is really important that I’m in the court to make sure the police and prosecutors don’t railroad my son, a young Black man who’s never been in trouble,” she said in her declaration. “I want to make sure that he doesn’t accept charges or a plea deal that he shouldn’t accept, and that the court doesn’t take the opportunity of an empty courtroom to throw excessive charges at him.”
In March, the Kern County Superior Court issued an order barring everyone except those who must attend scheduled hearings from entering courthouses due to the threat posed by COVID-19.
Earlier this month, the court said members of the public would be allowed to attend hearings or be provided with audio streams. However, the lawsuit says that implementation of that policy has been erratic and that in most cases family members and other observers were still turned away and denied alternatives.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to require the Superior Court to allow in-public access consistent with social distancing and a viable alternative method for remote access.
“This is no time for government secrecy, especially in the criminal justice system,” said First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder. “Kern County Superior Court must find a way to let the public back in.”