Californians want to use Zoom for court appearances. Will lawmakers let them?

Paul Flores, top left, and his father, Ruben Flores, bottom right, appear via video conference during their arraignment in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in San Luis Obispo on April 15, 2021. Jurors unanimously found Paul Flores guilty of first-degree murder. His father, Ruben Flores, was charged as an accessory in a separate trial for allegedly helping to conceal the crime. A verdict was also expected in his trial. Photo by Nic Coury, AP Photo

Since the pandemic, Democratic state Sen. Tom Umberg has joined hundreds of thousands of California’s lawyers, plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses and “Zoomed” in remotely to court hearings.

For Umberg, a practicing attorney and former federal prosecutor from Santa Ana, using remote video to help chip away at California’s backlogged court system has been undeniably beneficial for everyday Californians who have to go to court for one reason or another.

They can log into their appearances on their phones or computers instead of taking a day off work to make a time-consuming trip to the courthouse, he said. By the same token, lawyers charge their clients less when they don’t have to bill them hundreds of dollars an hour to drive to and from court for routine procedural hearings that make up the bulk of a court’s daily calendar. 

“Remote access is a way to be able to reduce costs and create greater accessibility, particularly to those who are indigent,” Umberg told CalMatters, using the legal term for someone who is too poor to afford a lawyer.

Umberg wants to make remote court hearings permanent, so it’s been frustrating for him to see the issue turn into a tedious annual fight in the California Legislature, despite video hearings being wildly popular. Ninety-six percent of the people who’ve taken a survey after one of the more than 3.5 million remote court hearings since 2022 said they had a positive experience, according to the Judicial Council of California, of which Umberg is a member.  

Yet rather than adopt a permanent law authorizing remote video in court, each year since 2021, lawmakers have temporarily extended the pandemic-era video program for another year or two.

The latest extension is Umberg’s Senate Bill 92, which would allow criminal court proceedings to continue to be held via video for another year. If a law isn’t passed, no remote video will be allowed in criminal courtrooms after Dec. 31. 

Lawyers address a judge in Madera County Superior Court in Madera on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2021. Photo by Larry Valenzuela for CalMatters

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a similar bill that allowed remote technology in civil and certain juvenile proceedings until Jan. 1, 2026.

The resistance to a permanent adoption comes primarily from the state’s public defenders associations and from one of the state’s most influential unions, Service Employees International Union California, which represents around 15,000 trial court workers in 34 counties. SEIU’s endorsements are highly sought in Democratic election campaigns, as is the union’s campaign cash. SEIU’s state council and local affiliated unions have given more than $9.1 million to California’s sitting legislators’ election campaigns, according to data from OpenSecrets.

The opponents say they don’t object to using video appearances in certain cases, particularly for routine procedural matters. But, for more serious proceedings, they cite concerns about fairness to defendants and accuracy in the official court record. 

They say some areas don’t have access to reliable internet, creating connectivity problems for those trying to Zoom in. Court reporters worry about creating inaccurate transcripts when they can’t clearly hear video. More broadly, the opponents groups cite worries about maintaining the integrity of the justice system.

“Too many things cannot be clear in a video call, such as overall demeanor, physical cues of emotional richness and the possibility of off-camera coaching,” Lesli Caldwell, a former Solano County public defender representing the California Public Defenders Association, told the Senate Public Safety Committee earlier this month.“Video evidence leads to dehumanization … of both witnesses and defendants.”

Courtroom workers also share those worries, said Michelle Castro, a retired lobbyist and director of government relations at SEIU California, who is now a consultant for the union. 

In an interview with CalMatters, she brushed off a reporter’s question about court workers being worried about the technology eventually replacing their jobs. Castro said SEIU’s court employees, particularly court reporters, are, however, worried about not being able to do their jobs well.

Castro said that as it stands, court reporters in the courtroom sometimes can’t clearly see or hear what’s being presented via video feed, leading to concerns that the reporters’ transcripts will be inaccurate, she said.

“They have a license that says they’re required to provide a verbatim record that has to be 100% accurate,” Castro said. “If it’s not, it threatens their license.”

Umberg said that to address those concerns and others, his pending legislation requires that a court reporter is present in the courtroom during a criminal hearing using remote video technology. The court reporter can also pause the hearing at any time if the audio is unclear. Plus, Umberg said defendants can choose to attend hearings in person. 

The Judicial Council, the policymaking body of California’s courts, supports Umberg’s bill. The council said the bill contains several provisions to protect the integrity of the system, including requiring witnesses to attend felony trials in person, and it gives judges the authority to order in-person court proceedings when it is appropriate.

That was enough to sway Umberg’s colleagues earlier this month on the Senate Public Safety Committee, where it passed unanimously, even though some committee Democrats had reservations.

“I’ve said a million times: I am not a fan of remote court proceedings, remote depositions,” Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, a former San Francisco deputy city attorney, said during the hearing. “But I understand the reality of where the legal system is right now. And I know that the authors and stakeholders have done a lot of work to put safeguards in place so that people are not forced into this.”

In 2022, Umberg’s bill to allow remote hearings in civil proceedings through 2026 was amended over his objections, forcing him to take the unusual step of urging colleagues on the Senate floor to vote against his bill.

Umberg was furious that the bill was changed to require, among other things, mentally ill people committed to state mental hospitals to attend in-person hearings. Mentally ill people, he said, had been allowed to attend court remotely from their hospitals even before the COVID-era rules took effect. 

Two legislative sources, asking not to be identified to avoid criticism of SEIU, said the labor union was responsible for the amendment. Castro, the SEIU legislative advocate, said her team had nothing to do with the changed bill. 

The traumatic experience of transporting mentally ill patients would have saddled taxpayers with “millions and millions of dollars for reasons that are inexplicable,” Umberg said on the Senate floor. “If this bill is signed, we now will torture those who are in state hospitals.” The Senate voted unanimously to kill the measure. 

The following year, Newsom signed an extension of the program that Umberg could live with, allowing patients at state mental hospitals to keep attending court remotely as they had previously. 

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