San Mateo judge unexpectedly denies remote court access to group of court watchers and media

Robert J Hansen

Same thing happened in Britney Spears’ conservatorship case 

Robert J Hansen / Newsbreak, Sacramento

(Sacramento, Calif.) A San Mateo family court judge abruptly and unexpectedly discontinued remote access to family court proceedings, preventing remote access to the public, court watchers and media early last month.

Judge Rachel Holt allowed about fifteen court watchers and media, via zoom, into the hearing last November which began then was postponed until the next day. But the following day, the roughly twenty people waiting to be admitted were denied the same access they had the day before.

The custody hearing involved the Me Too Moms National spokesperson who said this is another example of how Judge Holt has continually engaged in a pattern of retaliation and denial of due process and equal protection against her.

“There is no valid legal argument for San Mateo Superior Court to deny Family Law cases to be viewed remotely, or change the guidelines denying observers remote access,” the Me Too Moms spokesperson said. “Mothers came from around the country and the court changed its rules overnight.”

The over twenty court watchers attended to oversee the hearing monitoring for any irregularities. 

In a letter received by a court watcher, Sarah Lind, Deputy Court Executive Officer said the public is allowed to view family law proceedings remotely by way Zoom is at the discretion of each judicial officer. 

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San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Rachel E. Holt.Photo by(Office of Governor Gavin Newsom)

“All non-confidential court proceedings have been open to the public and fully accessible to the participants and the public since March 14, 2022. The Court originally implemented an audio-only public access line option, as well as Zoom, as an emergency and temporary measure to provide the public with remote access to non-confidential proceedings during the pendency of the COVID-19 pandemic, when in-person access to court facilities and proceedings was restricted due to social distancing and other public health measures,” Lind said.

Lind said now that Court proceedings take place in person, without restriction, the audio-only public access line, as well as the use of Zoom for public access, are no longer required.

Lind also said having the public attend proceedings in person as opposed to remotely helps to ensure that witnesses feel free to testify uninhibited, maintain the security of court proceedings against unauthorized recordings and leaks and ensure the dignity and decorum of the courtroom setting.

The San Mateo Court still has zoom links available on its website however it states that Zoom may not be used for public access without the approval of the judicial officer.

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Photo by(San Mateo Superior Court)

In Britney Spears’ conservatorship case, the Los Angeles Superior Court attempted to prevent the public and media from listening to nonconfidential proceedings in its courthouses live through its Remote Audio Attendance Program (RAAP), requiring in-person attendance for the public and media to monitor and report on what happens in court.

The L.A court abruptly cut off audio and video access to the public to the Spears case and all other cases in late June.

USA Today sued to allow the public and press access to the Spears conservatorship case which went to the California Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in favor of the Los Angeles Superior Court and did not require the court to reinstate its RAAP program.

Then, on August 16, 2021, the Judicial Council of California issued a report on the importance of remote access, recommending that courts “expand and maximize remote access permanently for most court proceedings.”

In that report, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye recommended that courts expand remote access—even after the pandemic ends—recognizing that audio and video technology increases access to justice for litigants, creates transparency by allowing the public and media to monitor proceedings, and eliminates the need for travel

“Californians should have the freedom of choice to conduct their business remotely whenever appropriate. I welcome the support of the Administration and the Legislature in accomplishing these changes to benefit the public we serve,” Justice Cantil-Sakauye said.

Nonetheless, the Superior Court of San Mateo announced on its website last month that Remote Access, which enables the public to listen via telephone to courtroom proceedings, has been discontinued, effective immediately.

“No explanation nor advanced notice was given. Other Bay Area counties' Superior Courts and even the Ninth District Federal Court in San Francisco continue to provide courtroom audio via telephone,” Professor Alan Wald said.

“Ironically, the announcement adds that the Superior Court will begin to convene some court proceedings via Zoom to eliminate the need for court trial participants to attend hearings in person. It states, ‘This is to reduce the number of visits by the public to the courthouses, thereby minimizing potential infection of the public and staff.’ Yet court watchers must attend in person.”

Wald said it sounds as if the court wants to stifle public oversight of the San Mateo County court system.

Public trials assure defendants a fair and honest playing field, and accurate reporting of court proceedings is critical to the public's right to know, according to Wald.

One court watcher said the restriction on public access to proceedings is an attack on court watch programs which have been shown to have the greatest impact on reducing discrimination in family law cases. 

“During covid, court watching became a vital tool to women in Family Court,” the court watcher said. “Remote appearances and the Public's ability to remotely access these proceedings increased transparency and improved equitable outcomes for women and children.”

 “Mothers are being criminalized by family courts by asking for protection from abuse for themselves and their children,” the Me Too Moms spokesperson said.

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Robert J Hansen is an investigative journalist and economist. Focused on holding elected officials, police and the courts accountable to the people throughout the greater Sacramento area.

Sacramento County, CA
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