Santa Barbara’s County Courthouse may someday reclaim its stature as an enticing and iconic attraction for bridal parties and tourists, but as a workplace for lawyers -- not so much.
George Eskin, retired trial attorney and Superior Court Judge turned legal reformer, says that the coronavirus shutdown of the courthouse, and the switchover of its "normal operations" to internet and virtual platforms, provides a glimpse of the future for how the legal system will operate in a post-Covid world.
"We’re never going to return to the normal that we’ve experienced over the past 50 years," Eskin said in a Newsmakers interview. "Everything is going to change."
Eskin was appointed to the Santa Barbara County bench in 2003 by former Gov. Gray Davis, after previously working in senior positions for the L.A. City Attorney and in the Ventura and SB D.A.'s offices, as well practicing criminal law as a private attorney. Married to state Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, he retired in 2013 and since has written and advocated on behalf of criminal justice reforms, involving bail, incarceration and sentencing policies and issues.
The judge told us that the pandemic shutdown is forcing, "a reexamination of just what the courts are," noting that under current conditions "the court’s still there, motions are still being heard, judges are still resolving issues. It's just that it’s being conducted in a different way."
"They provide a service, a judicial service, for determination and resolution of disputes," he added, "but our traditional concept has been of a building that is the courthouse."
Eskin cited the remarks of another jurist, "who observed that for years and years, attorneys get dressed, get into their cars, drive down to the courthouse, find a place to park, check in with the clerk, stand in line, sit in the audience waiting for their case to be called, waste an enormous amount of time.
"And the future may be that they’re going to be working from home or from their office and through a computer screen, electronically," he suggested. "How many of the functions that a court performs can be performed over the internet, can be performed electronically and how many of them require personal presence in court?"
Among a host of observations on a range of subjects about the justice system, the retired judge offered his perspective about:
Jury trials. Eskin that jury trials represent the one area where a courthouse may remain necessary as a spatial site: "The only thing that requires the courthouse is jury trials. That’s the only function that a court provides that I have serious questions about - how jury trials are going to be conducted in the future...The whole practice of law and the way litigation is conducted will be changed tremendously and attorneys are going to have to learn new techniques, new approaches to obtaining information from witnesses, and conducting cross examination and direct examination."
Bail. Because of the coronavirus, an emergency "zero bail" order is in effect throughout California's court system, directing the release of most of those arrested for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies and, the judge said, highlighting the inequities and irrationalities of the bail system: "The legal community, the justice community, is going to be looking at, why are people being confined pending an adjudication of their charges?...We have to ask ourselves, is a person being detained in custody because they can't afford to buy their way out? Or is it because they represent some kind of public risk?...The policy considerations basically have to do with the fact that poor people stay in jail and rich people get out and they may be charged with the same offense. That's certainly a denial of due process."
Recidivism and reentry. "The important point for everyone to recognize is that everyone who is in custody, other than those who are in custody on capital charges or life without possibility of parole, everybody else is going to be released from custody – today or tomorrow or next week or next month or next year -- they’re going to be released...And during the period of time that people are incarcerated, something positive should occur, so that when they reenter society, when they walk out of the jail, when they walk out of the prison, they’re in a different place than when they committed the crime that caused them to be prosecuted and convicted and incarcerated in the first place."
"It's not just a question of coddling criminals or being soft on crime," Eskin added. "It’s a question of getting to the root causes of the crime. Can we deal with those in the hope that we’re going to effect peoples conduct in the future? Locking them up and doing nothing does very little other than making them more sophisticated criminals."
You can watch the entire interview with Judge Eskin by clicking below. The podcast version is here.
Image: Judge Eskin on the bench shortly before his retirement in 2013 (Paul Wellman/SB Independent).