Madelyn Roderigues arrived at the rally in front of Santa Clara County’s Hall of Justice wearing black athletic pants, running shoes, a homemade mask and gray T-shirt with a quote from the Declaration of Independence knotted at her torso.
After being introduced by fellow public defender Sajid Khan, Roderigues took the mic and addressed the small crowd of protesters denouncing the closure of the courts as an injustice to the community. “Denying access to justice in this way by unilaterally deciding to shut the court is an act of violence,” she declared.
Roderigues has spent the better part of the past decade as a deputy public defender (five years in Santa Clara County, three in Solano County), a profession she chose after reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow in law school.
“I knew a lot of what was in the book already, I knew it to be true,” she recounted in an interview with San Jose Inside. “But to have it laid out and in such an elegant way, it ignited in me I think a bit of a call to action if you will.”
Roderigues found out about the closure of Santa Clara County Superior Court by text message Sunday, when a colleague alerted her to an email sent on behalf of presiding judge Deborah A. Ryan. The notice, which came after San Jose announced a citywide 8:30pm curfew, stated that Ryan would close courthouses for a day “in the interests of public safety.” Since the start of the pandemic, the courts had never fully closed, relying on video-conferencing technology to keep proceedings moving forward.
Though safety of judicial officers and employees were cited as the reasons for the closure, the Hall of Justice isn’t all that close to the site of the protests that have taken place each day in downtown San Jose over the death of George Floyd, and the demonstrations were not mentioned as the reasons for the concern over safety of court employees.
“With consideration for the safety of the public, our judicial officers and employees, I have made the difficult decision to close our courthouses tomorrow,” Ryan explained in the notice sent to court employees. “We will closely monitor circumstances in Santa Clara County and the city of San Jose and continue to act in the best interests of our community and public safety going forward.”
Roderigues had expected that after the weekend’s protests her court calendar would be filled with misdemeanor in-custody cases.
“Because we know as public defenders that if violence is inflicted on you by a police officer, the police officers will often charge you with a misdemeanor crime like resisting arrest, or battery on an officer, or trespassing, in order to avoid their civil liability,” she said. “So we expect those types of cases to arise when there are protests.”
Roderigues and her colleagues were concerned that in addition to violating arrestee’s constitutional rights to due process, the court closure was unnecessarily exposing them to COVID-19 while they waited in jail. “These are not just cases,” she said. “They’re people.”
Khan, a public defender for the past 12 years, agreed with Roderigues and condemned what he called a “complete lack of transparency” on the part of the court.
On Monday afternoon at approximately 3pm, the court reversed the closure in a notice that read, “Thank you for your patience and courtesy during the court closure today. The court will resume its regularly scheduled limited operations tomorrow, June 2.”
The second notice was signed by Ryan and Chief Executive Officer Rebecca J. Fleming.
Though the courts are open again—granted, with some proceedings delayed and others teleconferenced—the brief closure may push back the resolution of certain cases for weeks, according to public defenders.
Roderigues said the closure should be alarming not only to those who had to wait an additional day to be heard in court, but to all citizens, as the court closure presented a clear violation of due process rights under the Constitution’s 6th Amendment.
“There is a difference between having a right and exercising a right,” she said. “Do I really have the right if I can't actually exercise it? You have to breathe life into these rights and you can't do it on your own; you have to have the community stand with you to do it.”
Khan said that while the future is uncertain, he and fellow public defenders know their plan for the future. “We're gonna do what we did today,” he said, referring to Monday’s rally. “We’re going to show up to work.”