Judge bars remote access for OVN to cover hearings for water lawsuit

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Perry Van Houten, Ojai Valley News senior reporter
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge has denied a request by the Ojai Valley News for remote access to court proceedings in the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper case that involves thousands of Ojai Valley residents.
On Monday, prior to a status conference in the case, Judge William F. Highberger dismissed an ex parte application filed on behalf of the newspaper by the UC Irvine Law School.
The application stated that under the First Amendment and the state constitution, the press and public have a presumptive right of access to trials and cases, and the pandemic created a special circumstance that extended that right to remote access.
The newspaper had stated in a declaration Nov. 12 that it was reluctant to send a reporter to cover the case in person due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19, the availability of only one seat in the courtroom for the media, and the hardship of having to send one of the paper’s only two reporters to Los Angeles, 50 miles away, to attend hearings.
Furthermore, UCI argued on the OVN’s behalf that other county courts in California are allowing the press and public to see proceedings without physically having to come into the courtroom.
Highberger said the flaw in UCI’s argument was that the court remains open to the public and the media for physical access, with proper social-distancing and “25 empty seats.” The courthouse is close to freeways, parking and Metrolink, he added, “which allows social-distancing for travel.”
He denied the ex parte application “with prejudice,” meaning the request is dismissed permanently.
Highberger said Ojai Valley landowners named as riparian cross-defendants can appear in court remotely through LACourtConnect, whether or not they’ve filed an answer, by registering for $15.
He set another status conference in the case for Feb. 9 at 1:30 p.m.
In September, the American Civil Liberties Union’s First Amendment Coalition sent a letter to Judge Kevin Brazile, the presiding judge in the case, asking the court to ensure public access to proceedings in the Channelkeeper litigation, and court hearings in general.