Sometimes, you just need information from the court clerk. Calling them might not be the best bet, though. Before you dial, you should understand how to best communicate with California court clerks, including when not to call.
Ok, time for a confession.
I was a first year associate at a large law firm the first time a partner asked me to call a court clerk with a question about one of our filings. As a brand new lawyer, I was already nervous as I dialed the number. Then the clerk answered in a literal whisper.
“Judge Thrasher’s courtroom, this is Mary.”
The whisper threw me. Was she sick? Was she hiding from a rogue litigant attacking the courtroom? Something was clearly wrong here.
It never even occurred to me that court was in session, or that she’d answer (in a whisper) during court proceedings.
I hung up, made up some excuse to the partner about not being able to get through, and had my secretary handle the terrifying, whispering lady on the other end of the line.
So, that’s an example of how not to communicate with a court clerk.
Today, those hushed calls are less necessary than they used to be. With the advent of eFiling, online dockets, and endless internet-based services, many questions can be handled without a phone call.
Still, there are times when you need to talk to an actual person. In this article, we’ll discuss the best way to communicate effectively with California’s hard-working court clerks.
Check the local and local-local rules first
Anyone who might need to contact the court clerk should be familiar with the local rules of the relevant court, or they should be supervised by someone who knows them well.
The reason for this is simple. Some local rules specifically tell you when you should and should not call the clerk.
Take, for example, Local Civil Court Rule 8.C. from the Superior Court of Santa Clara County. It says, in pertinent part, “Parties and counsel must not contact the Clerk’s Office or any courtroom clerk to inquire of the status [of a scheduled hearing].” (Emphasis added.)
I would not want to be the law firm employee who failed to check the rules and called anyway.
In truth, this sort of ignorance can do a real disservice to your clients and your firm’s reputation, especially if it happens repeatedly. Always check the local rules first.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also tell you to check the local-local rules (i.e., the rules pertaining to a particular Judge within each court system).
By way of additional example, the local-local rules for Judge Layne H. Melzer of Orange County Superior Court instruct parties (in underlined font) not to call the court for tentative rulings if they aren’t posted on the day they were anticipated.
Utilize online resources
As noted above, much of the business of modern courts is now handled online.
Some courts, like Placer County Superior Court, even have a live chat service that allows parties to ask questions via an online messaging platform. I’ve never tried it myself, but I assure you an online chat would be much easier to navigate than a fully-whispered telephone conversation.
Remember, courts don’t offer this plethora of online services just so you can ignore them.
Every single person who works in the court system is busy. Thus, to the extent you’re able to avoid pulling them away from their regular tasks to answer your question, everyone is better off. Always do some online research first to try to answer your own questions, or at least find the correct avenues to ask them.
If possible, appoint a court-contacting guru at your firm
Look at Superior Court websites throughout the State and you’ll notice that many have very similar interfaces. If your firm has the bandwidth, it’s wise to appoint one person, probably a paralegal, to become the court website guru for your firm.
Of course, being informed about online court services wouldn’t be this person’s only duty. It would just give attorneys and other staff members a specific go-to person to approach whenever questions arise about how and when to contact the court.
This person might also be given semi-exclusive responsibility for actually contacting court clerks.
Just like in any profession, relationships in law develop over time. If your local clerks are familiar with your best paralegal (who has always asked appropriate questions), they’re more likely to give good information than they might be to a newbie who fumbles through phone calls.
If you do call, choose your words carefully
Finally, if you’re confident you’ve exhausted all available online resources and you absolutely, positively must contact the court clerk over the phone, be very careful about what you say.
First of all, be succinct.
They don’t have time to hear about your grandson’s cousin’s 10th birthday party. They want to know what case you’re calling about and what your question is.
Along those lines, be sure to have your case number available while you’re on the phone, because they will use that number to look up your case information. They don’t want to wait while you fumble around your case file.
Also, quickly let them know you’ve tried to avoid the telephone call. You could say, for example: “Hi Mary, my name is Sam Jones and I’m calling about Case Number 23-05164. I’ve checked the local rules and the self-help pages of the Court’s website but I couldn’t find how to fix our summary judgment motion, which was mistakenly filed without page 10. Can you help me?”
This signals that you’re not just calling the court on a whim. You’ve put in the work to find an answer and you’ve still come up short.
This should buy you a little patience from the busy clerks on the other end of the line (unless you’re lying or a bad researcher, which they will know immediately).
Ultimately, all legal professionals need to remember that court clerks are incredibly busy people. Treat them with the respect they deserve and you’ll typically get that in return.