California’s Third District Court of Appeal held Tuesday that minors who are the subject of juvenile court hearings have the right to be physically present at those hearings, and that under COVID-19 emergency rules, courts must obtain a juvenile’s consent before conducting their hearing remotely.

In April, the California Judicial Council adopted a package of 11 emergency rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including rules governing the conduction of remote court proceedings. For criminal hearings, Emergency Rule 3 required a defendant’s consent to conduct the proceedings remotely. For juvenile delinquency proceedings, Emergency Rule 7 provided that courts could hold such proceedings remotely as long as they were consistent with Emergency Rule 3.

Yolo County Superior Court then issued its own temporary local rules responding to the pandemic in June. One of those rules required all appearances in juvenile court to occur remotely, absent a good cause finding.

The juvenile petitioner in this case challenged that local rule and a Yolo County judge’s dismissal of his motion to physically appear at his hearing. The judge found that although Welfare and Institutions Code section 679 entitles minors to be present at their juvenile court hearings, the statute provides “a right to a presence…but not personal presence.”

The judge also concluded that the juvenile’s consent didn’t have to be obtained to conduct his hearing remotely, reasoning that he was not a “defendant” in a “criminal proceeding” under Emergency Rule 3.

Reversing the lower court, the Third District held that the Judicial Council’s emergency rules, consistent with section 679, require courts to obtain minors’ consent before conducting juvenile delinquency proceedings remotely.

This interpretation, the court held, is “consistent with emergency rule 7’s plain language, which makes no mention of limiting its incorporation of emergency rule 3.”

“As petitioner points out, emergency rule 3’s use of terms applicable in adult criminal cases, such as ‘defendant’ and ‘criminal proceedings,’ is not dispositive,” the court reasoned.

The court also held that section 679 gives minors the right to be physically present in the courtroom during their juvenile court hearings, although a minor may waive that right.

“To the extent the court’s temporary local rules require all hearings in juvenile delinquency proceedings be conducted remotely absent a finding of good cause, the rules are in conflict with both section 679 and the emergency rules,” the court held.

Jonathan Opet, who represented the minor in the case, said in an emailed statement that the decision is “a victory for all children accused of crimes in California,” and that the COVID-19 pandemic “should not be used to infringe upon the rights of children in the legal system.”

A spokesperson for the California Attorney General’s Office said in an email that the office is reviewing the decision.

The case is E.B. v. Superior Court of Yolo County, case number C092677, in the Third District Court of Appeal for the state of California.

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