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No social spacing at ex-congressman’s sentencing hearing

SAN DIEGO — The small federal courtroom in San Diego where former California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter was sentenced Tuesday was crowded, and there was no attempt by attendees, security or the judge to separate people as recommended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Before imposing an 11-month sentence, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas J. Whelan acknowledged concerns about the virus had interrupted proceedings in many courts. He said Hunter wanted the hearing to proceed and that attendance in the courtroom was below the 50-person limit recommended by federal health officials.

However, people in the gallery that seats 36 people were not adhering to the recommendation that people stay six feet apart. Reporters and others were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in some cases.

Whelen did respond to a request for comment after the hearing. Hunter’s attorney, Devin Burstein, said he knew of no defendant asking for a postponement.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said no gathering should surpass 50 people, President Donald Trump said Monday that a better limit is 10. Citing that number, Chief Judge Larry Alan Burns announced hours after Hunter’s sentencing hearing that all jury trials in civil and criminal cases in the district will be suspended until April 16.

Sentencings, arraignments and other hearings will be suspended as well unless directed otherwise by individual judges, according to the order. Criminal complaints and arrest and search warrants, initial appearances, and bail and detention hearings will continue before magistrate judges.

The order mirrors the precautions taken by other federal and state courts nationwide.

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it was postponing arguments for the first time in more than 100 years because of the pandemic.

Federal courts in northern California, including San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, are closed to the public until May 1 and will not be holding trials until then.

Judges can still rule on cases and hold hearings by teleconference, among other things.

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