At the entrance to the Monterey County Supreme Court, security guards will ask if you have a fever, cough, or sore throat and if you have tested positive for Covid-19 in the past 14 days. They point an infrared thermometer at your forehead to take your temperature before they let you in. The yellow tape on the benches in the hallways of the courtroom and in the galleries of the courtroom marks where you can and cannot sit. Employees and the public are expected to wear masks at all times.
There is one seeming exception to this last rule, and it has roused a group of local criminal defense lawyers: Several judges, according to lawyers in a letter to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and district presiding judge Julie Culver, have done repeatedly taken the bank without masks. And while the court has put plexiglass barriers throughout the courthouse, including where judges preside, the nine lawyers who signed the letter say the plexiglass barriers “don't make wearing a mask superfluous.
"Everyone in Monterey County must wear face-covering when working in an area visited by the public, regardless of whether a member of the public is present at the time," the letter posted on Aug. 24 said. "Failure to wear a mask or other appropriate face covering in an area visited by the public is a violation of the orders of Governor [Gavin] Newsom … and the orders of the County Health Commissioner of Monterey.
"A judge who takes the bank without a mask is putting the public at risk," the letter said. "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 plexiglass barriers or a distance of two meters."
Chris Ruhl, administrative officer for the court, said that in July Los Angeles District Supreme Court officials sought advice from both the Department of Justice and the Department of Health.
The response was that, given the special constitutional status of the judiciary, state health authorities are not interpreting their guidelines regarding the use of face coverings in such a way “to limit the inherent authority of judges and to ensure the safe and orderly conduct of proceedings in their own courtrooms .
“Unsurprisingly, the courts in California are across the board on this. Some have asked law enforcement officers to wear masks and many – I would most believe – have not, ”says Ruhl. "It is a verdict and judges can draw different conclusions, both generally and in certain circumstances."
Defense attorney Phil Crawford, principal signer of this letter, says that aside from the question of the can, there is a question of the should.
"We're never going to create a situation that is 100 percent safe, but I don't think it is good news for some judges to decide they don't wear masks, especially when everyone else is required to," Crawford says. "You are the authority in the room and should set the tone and obey the law."