Claiming the court prioritizes non-essential operations over “community safety and human life,” five legal aid organizations on Tuesday sued Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Kevin Brazile for holding certain hearings in person during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In a complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the organizations claim that by permitting and sometimes mandating in-person appearances for unlawful detainer and traffic hearings, the presiding judge has put attorneys and litigants at high risk of contracting COVID-19 from non-emergency courtroom proceedings — especially as public health experts call Los Angeles “the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.”

The court’s communications director Ann E. Dolan said in an emailed statement that the court doesn’t comment on pending litigation. “However, we anticipate that all matters brought by litigants each day across this County will be heard safely and fairly because of our commitment to equal access to justice,” Dolan said.

Courts across California, including Los Angeles County Superior Court, were closed for in-person hearings for several months as the pandemic first took hold in the United States last March.

The court has since reopened for in-person proceedings in unlawful detainer and traffic matters, “and, unjustifiably, has remained open and continued to calendar these matters in the height of the pandemic, even as hundreds of Angelenos die from this virus every day,” the complaint states. The organizations note that Los Angeles County recently surpassed 15,000 deaths related to COVID-19 and that three of the court’s own staff have died from the virus.

The suit claims the court’s facilities “are built and administered in a way that makes it impossible to maintain a safe social distance of six feet or more, particularly within crowded and poorly ventilated courtrooms and hallways,” adding that public health experts have determined that such conditions are ripe for a “super-spreader” event.

In-person appearances disproportionately affect Los Angeles residents who are low-income or people of color, the organizations allege — “for example, people facing homelessness in unlawful detainer actions, or people with traffic citations who, if they were better resourced, could opt to avoid their court date by simply paying off the ticket.”

Los Angeles County continues to punish people who don’t show up for their hearings, the complaint states, imposing consequences ranging from fines to driver’s license suspensions to orders resulting in eviction or homelessness.

And in holding these hearings in person, Los Angeles County is “an anomaly,” the organizations claim, noting that the Ninth Circuit, federal courts, and California appeals courts are closed for all in-person civil appearances.

“In this time of horrific tragedies and preventable suffering and death, our government must set an example by removing risks and sending a clear and unmistakable message that nothing is more important than pulling together to beat this virus,” the complaint states.

Making claims for public nuisance and dangerous condition of public property, among other causes of action, the organizations ask the court for an injunction preventing the presiding judge and clerk of court from holding unlawful detainer and traffic hearings in person during the pandemic.

The case is Public Counsel v. Presiding Judge, Superior Court of Los Angeles County, in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles.

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