Legal Community’s Opposition To Court Realignment Mounting

(March 27)  Nine former presidents of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association and two former San Bernardino County Superior Court judges have joined the growing chorus of legal professionals who have taken a public stand in opposition to current San Bernardino County Superior Court Presiding Judge Marsha Slough’s announced realignment of the county court system.
The realignment will entail transferring all civil cases countywide to the new San Bernardino Justice Center, an eleven story edifice with 35 courtrooms now in the final stages of completion. In addition, San Bernardino district criminal cases, now being heard in the San Bernardino Central Courthouse built in 1927, will be tried in the new San Bernardino Justice Center.
West Valley Superior Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga, which currently is the venue for both civil and criminal cases originating on the west end of the county, will be devoted primarily to criminal cases, including those arising on the county’s west end and other felony and misdemeanor cases from the county’s central district which are currently routed to the Fontana Courthouse.  A small portion of the criminal cases now heard in Fontana will be adjudicated in San Bernardino. At least temporarily, hearings on both civil and domestic violence restraining order matters will be heard at the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse.
The historic San Bernardino Courthouse will remain as the forum for the family law cases it currently hosts and will soon serve as the venue for the family law cases presently heard in Rancho Cucamonga.
The Fontana Courthouse will become the stage for all small claims, landlord tenant disputes and traffic/non-traffic infractions from the San Bernardino, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga districts. The lion’s share of criminal cases now being heard in Fontana will transfer to Rancho Cucamonga. A lesser number of the Fontana criminal cases will go to San Bernardino.
The Victorville Courthouse will remain a venue for High Desert family law cases.
Slough, who formulated the realignment plan in conjunction with former assistant presiding judge Larry Allen, former county courts executive officer Stephen Nash and current county courts executive officer Christina Volkers, said the realignment, which is to go into effect in May, is necessitated by the state’s severe and ongoing cuts to the court system, which included a nearly $11 million reduction in fiscal 2009-10, a $5 million reduction in 2011-12,  and a whopping $19 million reduction in 2012-13.  In the current year and next year, the court system  in San Bernardino County is to function on identical $98 million annual budgets, which Slough said is greater than the allotment in 2012-13, but still $12 million less than what it had to run its affairs in 2008-09.
While sympathetic to the fiscal constraints Slough must function within, a number of attorneys expressed alarm when Slough tentatively announced the intended realignment late last year. They pointed out that over the last two years the closures of the Needles courthouse at the county’s northeast end, the closure of the Chino courthouse at the county’s southwest end, the closure of courthouses in the San Bernardino Mountain communities and the removal of civil cases from the Victorville and Joshua Tree courthouses had already greatly inconvenienced large numbers of the county’s residents and compromised their access to justice. The realignment, they assert, will virtually prevent a major segment of the county’s population from going to court altogether.
Far flung San Bernardino County, which spans more than 20,000 square miles, is the largest county in the lower 48 states, with a land mass greater than the states of Delaware, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.
Even before the civil courts were closed in Victorville, it was a forbidding sojourn for some county residents seeking justice. Driving distance from Needles to Barstow is 144 miles one way, with an average traveling time of two hours and eleven minutes. The trip from Needles to San Bernardino, which in less than two months will host the only courtrooms in the county where civil cases will be heard, is 212 miles, with an average traveling time of three hours and nine minutes.
Residents of Chino Hills and Chino, who two years ago had the courthouse in Chino at their disposal but since December 2012 have needed to travel anywhere from 18 to 30 miles to reach the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse, will need to travel 40 to 52 miles to access the civil courts in San Bernardino.
Large numbers of attorneys, including Dennis Stout, who was formerly the county district attorney and mayor of Rancho Cucamonga; Gus Skropos, a former judge and former mayor of Ontario; Richard Anderson, who has been practicing law since 1968 and was formerly Upland mayor; as well as James Banks and David Ricks, a past president and the current president-elect of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association, respectively, assailed the realignment as an ill-conceived move that would produce only marginal cost savings for the court system itself while transferring the financial burden to the county’s residents and other public agencies, while simultaneously legally disenfranchising hundreds of thousands of the county’s residents.
Numerous problems with the realignment were cited, including:
•    The sheer distance large numbers of county residents will need to travel to have their cases heard;
•    The disadvantage that poorer defendants and litigants will suffer vis-a-vis contesting charges against them or responding to or pressing forward with lawsuits filed by or against well-heeled adversaries;
•    The concentration of criminal defendants into Rancho Cucamonga’s downtown district;
•    The lack of adequate parking in downtown San Bernardino to accommodate the influx of litigants, lawyers, witnesses and jurors;
•    The perception that transferring all of the county’s civil cases to San Bernardino was being done not to conserve finances or improve the provision of justice but to assist with the urban renewal of San Bernardino, which as the county seat and the largest of the county’s 24 cities, suffered the ignominy of having filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
This week, the Sentinel was provided with the responses obtained so far from a survey of past presidents of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association, querying them on their perspective on Slough’s realignment proposal.
The West End San Bernardino County Bar Association was formed in 1958. It took as its first major undertaking an ultimately successful lobbying effort to have a full-service courthouse handling all manner of civil and criminal cases constructed in the western portion of the county. Ultimately, because of that effort, a court house was established at Sixth Street and Mountain Avenue in Ontario. That facility was later replaced by the West Valley Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga.
William Pitt Hyde, who was the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association president in 1960-61 and was later a Superior Court judge, said of the realignment, “It is so stupid I can hardly believe they’re doing it.”
Don Maroney, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1964-65 and Upland’s city attorney for more than two decades, said, “I think it’s a bad idea.”
Kenneth Ziebarth, who was the mayor of Montclair, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1968-69 and later a Superior Court judge, said, “This is contrary to all of our efforts to increase public access.”
Bruce Lance, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1971-72, said, “This is retrograde.  They are dumping a system that served the public well.”
Sidney Jones, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1972-73, said, “The plan forgets service to the public. The managers are thinking of themselves only and not the purpose of the courts to serve the needs of the public.”
Bob Dougherty, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1974-75 and later the city attorney in Rancho Cucamonga, opined, “Those people are nuts. Who and what are they thinking about?  Not the public. This is a dumb and unnecessary decision, which will adversely impact our lives. Moving civil cases from a closing court branch to the county seat might make sense, but what good will come from moving civil cases out of a branch court which remains open?”
Barry Brandt, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1977-78, said, “I am strongly opposed.”
Ken Glube, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association in 1978-79, said, “It is a foolish idea, unnecessary, uneconomical and inconvenient to all involved.”
Tracy L. Tibbals, the president of the Western San Bernardino County Bar Associaiton in 1985-86, said, “It sounds nuts.  I can’t see any savings to the court and lots of expense to the public they’re supposed to serve.”
In addition, two retired Superior Court judges weighed in against the realignment.
Joseph E. Johnston called the pending change “a disaster.”
Ben Kayashima, who was presiding judge in 1990 and 1991, called the realignment “disgusting.”

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