California may have fully reopened its economy on Tuesday, but the Palo Alto Courthouse won't be part of that celebration. Dwindling budget revenue from the state continues to impact staffing and it could be months before service is restored at the north county location, a court spokesperson confirmed.
The courthouse at 270 Grant Ave. in Palo Alto and the South County Courthouse in Morgan Hill will stay shuttered for the foreseeable future, Santa Clara County Superior Court spokesperson Benjamin Rada said Monday. The Palo Alto Courthouse handled proceedings for short-term criminal cases that occurred in the northern end of the county; those cases are now being handled in San Jose.
The courthouses closed in March 2020 because of health and safety concerns tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2020, the state cut $176.9 million from trial court funding, including more than $16 million from the county Superior Court system's budget. The court announced in November that it would temporarily pause many court operations, including clerk's offices, when it announced delays in some services and backlogs for noncriminal cases.
Most employees were furloughed or were offered voluntary separation agreements; some were laid off, which reduced the court’s workforce. Many remaining employees also took protected leave permitted by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Rada said.
Criminal cases have been largely conducted through video conferencing, and public access to hearings and trials is available through teleconference connections to courtrooms at the Hall of Justice as precautions against the deadly coronavirus.
As the county has moved to fewer restrictions under the state's Blueprint for a Safer Economy in recent months, the court system began reopening some of its clerk's offices. The Traffic Court clerk's offices at the Santa Clara Courthouse reopened on Feb. 16. Clerk's offices at the Family Justice Center Courthouse, Downtown Superior Courthouse and the Hall of Justice, all in San Jose, reopened March 8 for in-person business. All the locations have social distancing protocols in place.
Major changes aren't likely in the short term. The court system will probably keep conducting its business in much the same way to maintain social distancing, including continuing meetings by teleconference, Rada said.
The Palo Alto and South County courthouses are not slated to meet the fate of the Sunnyvale Courthouse, which closed permanently and moved to the Family Justice Center Courthouse in San Jose in August 2016, Rada noted. They will eventually reopen. But they and the other court buildings are likely to look different, with plexiglass screens and other enhancements to protect public and employee health. Those modifications will take time, Rada said.
In terms of a return to the status quo, the court "will still keep an eye on public health, and safety is our highest priority. We will make adjustments based on Cal/OSHA (California Division of Occupational Safety and Health) and the California Department of Public Health guidelines," Rada said.
In the meantime, the public can access the clerk's offices in person or by phone on Mondays through Thursdays, 8:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; and Fridays, 8:30 a.m.-noon.