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Lawsuit: Kern County court denied moms entry to proceedings

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A lawsuit says Kern County Superior Court is unlawfully denying the public’s access to court proceedings despite resuming jury trials as the county began reopening for business.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the First Amendment Coalition filed the federal lawsuit Friday on behalf of five women who said they were turned away when they tried to attend their boyfriend’s or son’s court hearings and weren’t given options to see or hear the proceedings by video or phone.

A fifth plaintiff, who heads the ACLU of Southern California’s watchdog program for the Kern County court system, said they were also denied access to multiple court hearings.

Kristin Davis, a spokeswoman for the court system, said she couldn’t comment on pending litigation and referred to the court’s website, which said the public can ask a judicial officer for permission to attend proceedings as long as they wear face coverings and keep a safe distance from others.

The plaintiffs countered that despite the policy, they were denied their constitutional rights to watch criminal proceedings that could alter the course of their sons’ lives.

“I do not understand why it is okay to open up casinos but we cannot go into the courthouse,” Janie Randle said in a declaration for the lawsuit.

“That fact that people can gamble but I can’t watch my son’s court hearings is not right,” said Randle, whose son is facing an attempted murder charge.

Tanisha Brown, who said her son was arrested by police during a protest against racial injustice and police brutality, said she and other supporters who tried to attend his arraignment were refused entry.

“I want to make sure that he doesn’t accept charges or a plea deal that he shouldn’t accept, and that the court doesn’t take the opportunity of an empty courtroom to throw excessive charges at him,” Brown said about her son, who is Black.

The lawsuit said signs were still up in courthouses, declaring, “If you are not an attorney, party, defendant, or subpoenaed courthouse witness, you should not enter the courthouse and you should return home.” It said courts across the country, including other superior courts in California, have dealt with public health concerns by providing limited physical access or call-in numbers so that the public can listen in on court proceedings.

The plaintiffs asked a federal judge to order the Kern County Superior Court to allow in-person access and provide an alternative method for remote access.

“No one can have confidence that a court proceeding is fair if no one can watch,” said Kathleen Guneratne, senior staff attorney at the ACLU NorCal.

Associated Press

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