SAN BERNARDINO (March 20)—San Bernardino County’s current presiding judge and immediate past assistant presiding judge this week said the scheduled realignment of the county court system in May is one that has been necessitated by the state drastically cutting back on court budgets and raiding the reserve funds county court administrators were previously allowed to maintain.
On March 19, the last full day of winter and less than two months before the opening of the new downtown San Bernardino Courthouse and the initiation of the realignment, Presiding Judge Marsha Slough, Judge Larry Allen, whose term as assistant presiding judge ended in January 2014 and San Bernardino County Court executive officer Christina Volkers met with the Sentinel to provide a description of the realignment, explain the factors necessitating it and answer criticism that the move is a counterproductive change that will effectuate minimal cost savings while imposing on the residents of the county an insufferable burden by consolidating the various functions of the court in too few locations and requiring most residents to travel tremendous distances to access justice.
The makeover will include transferring all civil cases countywide to the new San Bernardino Justice Center, an eleven story edifice with 40 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.
After the terms of the realignment were spelled out to the county’s legal community, alarm spread among the county’s lawyers in general and particularly among attorneys working on the county’s west end.
A chorus of those attorneys pointed out that the closures of the Needles courthouse at the county’s north east 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 set to take place in May, 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 20 to 30 miles to reach the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse, will need to travel 45 to 55 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.
Judge Marsha Slough, who has served as presiding judge for San Bernardino County since September 2012, rejected those criticisms, saying the realignment was a carefully calibrated and crafted approach to a nearly impossible challenge.
“We are doing it this way because it allows us to focus our resources where we need to focus them,” she said. “I know for those on the outside looking in and even for some of those on the inside it is very hard to get your arms around this. The rationale behind this may not seem clear but if you are sitting in this seat as I am and you see and are living every day with the decline in the money we are receiving year after year and you still have the statutory obligation to handle those files in a timely manner, you better figure out how to do it. Missing statutory deadlines is not something you can do once you have taken the oath to uphold the constitution. We understand what this will entail. We have gotten into our cars and driven throughout the county.”
Slough sought to provide a financial backdrop to the situation she and Allen, who was previously presiding judge in 2006 and 2007, face.
“In 2008-09, the court system in San Bernardino County had a budget of $110 million,” she said. “Most of our funding for that year came directly from the state, such that the county courts spent $1.1 out of its reserves that fiscal year. In 2009-10, the state began cutting the amount of money the county court system had to work with, resulting in a $99.2 million budget, with $6.3 million of that coming from the system’s reserves. In 2010-11, the court system in San Bernardino County saw a respite in the funding reductions, based upon the state providing an infusion of funds consisting of one-time transfers of funds from other state accounts that pushed the San Bernardino County court system budget back up to $108 million, with $1.8 million coming from reserves. But that did not last. The following year, 2011-12, the state was again reducing funding to the courts, with the budget being reduced to $103 million, requiring the expenditure of $4.7 million from the county system’s reserves. In 2012-13, the money supplied by the state to the county court system dropped precipitously to $84 million. The county dug into its reserves that year to come up with $15.4 million.”
At that point, Slough said, new legislation went into effect that called upon all court systems to maintain a reserve of no more than one percent of their annual budget.
In the current 2013-14 fiscal year, the court system for San Bernardino County has a projected budget of $98 million. In 2014-15, Slough said the court system for San Bernardino County’s budget was projected at $98 million again.
Slough said she realized that many lawyers and others are lamenting the consolidations that are to be put into place with the realignment in May, but pointed out that the trend in consolidation has been ongoing for several years now.
“We had an informal juvenile court,” she said. “We did away with that. We closed the courthouse in Chino in December of 2012. We closed the Barstow Courthouse but we have now reopened one courtroom there three days a week for handling small claims, unlawful detainers, domestic violence/restraining orders and traffic trials. Barstow does not do a full traffic calendar. It does not handle criminal cases. It does not handle civil cases, all of which have been removed to San Bernardino. San Bernardino already does all of the civil cases from Barstow and Victorville, Joshua Tree and Big Bear. Victorville has not had civil cases for years. At present Victorville is limited to criminal cases, family law, traffic, small claims and unlawful detainers.”
Both Slough and Allen used the term “evolving” in reference to the ongoing changes in the court system, which contrasted with the depiction of devolvement which the critics of the realignment lay at the feet of the court’s executive office.
“At one time, we had almost thirty courts in this county,” Allen said, indicating the closures over decades and the more recent accommodations that he said were carefully weighed and considered. “This has been something that has been a long time formulating. This reorganization, realignment, reengineering or whatever you want to call it did not spring full form like Athena with a full panoply of war from Zeus’s head. There has been an evolution toward efficiency and consolidation. If I had my way, it would not be like it is today, with only six active courthouses. I would do it differently with many more small local courthouses. But we are left with what we have. We cannot just tear everything we have down and start over. We have to make our changes incrementally on what we have and our vision of the future.”
Slough said she inherited from her predecessors as presiding judge a situation in which the county’s court system had been hamstrung by funding limitations.
According to California’s Judicial Needs Assessment, San Bernardino County should have 156 judges and
The state has authorized 91 judges to serve on the courts located in San Bernardino County but has provided funding for only 86.
“We have more than fifty percent fewer employees – judges and staff – than we need,” Slough said. “This is a horrific situation. It is remarkable, to be honest with you, that we are still functioning and meeting our statutory requirements. With the budget cuts we have made layoffs to our staff. When the employees you had go away, that workload stacks on top of the employees that remain. Our courts are still running and I cannot say enough about how much our staff does, year after year, by the month, the week, every day, every hour.”
Referring to court staff as those serving “on the front line,” Slough said they were carrying out their duty despite having been undercut by budgetary decisions made in Sacramento.
“For every dollar that comes out of the state general fund, the courts get 1.2 cents,” she said.
Allen said that the governor and the legislature have fallen into a pattern of raiding the courts’ financial allotments early in the budget process and then making slightly less draconian cuts with the final passage of the annual budgets, calling the pittance that is restored new money.
“It’s not new money,” Allen said. “What they put back in does not equal what they took away.”
Slough said she has had no choice but to make the unpopular changes to the way the county’s courts function.
“If you look at the background and what has been going on since 2008-09, you can see we are confronted by a financial crisis,” she said. “We could not continue to operate in the same way we always had. When the state takes that big of a chunk of your funding away from you and you are limited to one percent on your saving account, you are called upon to reallocate and reshuffle where and when you will do the work.”
One aspect of Slough’s realignment that was roundly second-guessed was concentrating the county’s criminal cases in Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino. Both Slough and Allen dismissed the suggestion that this was in any way a disservice to the county’s residents or resisted by the sheriff’s department or the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices.
“The response from the sheriff with regard to our reduction in criminal court locations is very favorable,” Allen said. “We will now be functioning entirely from more secure locations. At the central courthouse you have defendants in custody chained together who are then moved through corridors or hallways where members of the public are exposed to them. In Fontana, these shackled prisoners require constant monitoring by bailiffs and sheriff’s personnel. In Rancho Cucamonga and in the new San Bernardino Courthouse, a member of the sheriff’s department is able to put our in-custody defendants unescorted into an elevator and send them up to a specific floor where they are met by a bailiff. That is a far better arrangement. This reduces the need for personnel. The courts have always been looking for ways of reducing the number of bailiffs. This is a much more efficient and safer way of processing defendants. The sheriff’s department loves it. They will now need to transport their prisoners to fewer places. This consolidation offers the same cost benefit to the public defender and district attorney from the standpoint of reducing their need for multiple facilities and offices.”
Slough met accounts of widespread resistance to the realignment by judges, court staff and prosecutors with the response that “not every individual deputy or probation officer is going to be happy with being transferred When Larry was presiding judge I was sent out to Joshua Tree. I did not appreciate it at the time. If I recall, I don’t think he got a Christmas card from me that year. But looking back on it, I now see it as one of the best times I served. Yes, there are judges who do not want to move. Was every single judge counseled? No. Each was informed. Many were advised. Some told me straight out ‘You have to make the hard decision. I’m glad it’s you and not me,’” she said.
Slough continued, “If you take every big decision out to a committee you will flounder in frustration because there will always be differences of approach among even those with the same basic goal. The best you can do if you are charged with making the decision is to get educated on what you are faced with, what the facts are and the limitations you have to work within, local and global, and then you make the tough decision and execute.”
The perception that the realignment plan was formulated in secret and is being imposed by executive fiat is inaccurate, Allen said, although he acknowledged it was abruptly unveiled to prevent the dissemination of inaccurate information.
“The courts and the people who work within them are incapable of keeping a secret,” he said. “Once the information is out there it goes all over the place, in a mutated form usually. You have to be discrete in discussing things of this nature. That is just an outgrowth of the process.” Allen said the realignment in its “early version was displayed at a full bench meeting. Many had not heard of it before that time. We put it out as a proposal. We asked for suggestions. The judges had their chance to weigh in then. This outcry that some talk about was never said directly to Judge Slough. At one time we were considering polling all of the court reporters in family law about this. When we consulted with the judges about that we decided not to go that route.”
Allen continued, “The presiding judge is not a Caesar-like figure who can disregard her colleagues. She can be recalled. We have to live with this image that in this office [of presiding judge] there is this monolithic power, but there is no monolith. If there are people who are against this but do not want to be quoted, you have to ask why they are not willing to take a stand publicly. That they are unwilling to be identified, I think, brings what they are saying into question.”
Allen said he and Slough had formulated the best approach to the financial crisis they can, given the constraints they must function within. He owned up to some degree of inconsistency in approach and strategy over the years, but said this was an outgrowth of changes in the state’s economic support network.
“Every decision you make in retrospect may not have been the best,” Allen said. “When I was presiding judge, we built another courtroom in Joshua Tree. That was before we experienced all of the budgetary cutbacks we have gone through. I did not foresee the downturn in the economy.”
Allen was presiding judge in 2006 when the plan to build the new courthouse in San Bernardino was approved. He said that he and other decision-makers at that time had a somewhat differing conception of how it would be utilized than the range of uses to which it will actually be put when it opens in less than two months.
He said previously a portion of the courthouse was envisioned as being devoted to juvenile court. That has been abandoned, he said.
“It turned out that the juvenile operational portion did not have proper sight and sound barriers for juveniles in adult custody,” he said. “How it would be used is changed dramatically because of the budget cuts we have experienced in the years since. The process of running a court is very fluid.”
Efficiency is the watchword, Slough insisted.
“As the administrators of the court, we are responsible for making decisions so that our precious resources are distributed as efficiently as possible so we can provide the best service to those we are charged to serve,” she said. “We have looked at the numbers and have tried to efficientize our case loads. Family law being consolidated in one building consolidates the self-help and mediator services where people can come to access them rather than having them spread all over and for these family law cases, which are very important to people, we have a broader source of judges and staff. In Rancho Cucamonga there are four family law judges with just over 1,000 cases a piece filed in 2013. San Bernardino has five family law judges and their case load is 1,500 each from 2013. We are taking this opportunity to more equitably distribute the handling of the cases from throughout the county. This is not being done for the convenience of the judges but for the people we serve. We will be able to have self help services and mediation services in one location. When we consolidate like that we can offer everyone who needs them a higher level of service and ensure everyone of the same level of service. It is not just the efficiency we are looking at but the quality of service.”
In a similar fashion, Slough said, moving the entire court system’s civil division to San Bernardino will allow disparities in case loads to be rebalanced.
“Our judges and staff in Rancho Cucamonga do substantially less civil work than our judges in San Bernardino,” she said. “The civil judges here [i.e., in San Bernardino] have almost 600 cases more per judge. Having all that work load is not good. The five judges hearing civil cases in Rancho Cucamonga have an average case load of 2,300 cases filed in 2013. In San Bernardino, the judges average case loads of 2,900. from 2013 By bringing all of the civil judges and civil cases to San Bernardino we can essentially distribute and equalize the case loads between judges. This won’t happen immediately but as new cases are filed, the ones with the shorter case loads will see their number increase, so the work will be more equitably distributed. The same applies to our family law judges.”
Additionally, Slough said, “By having all of the civil cases in San Bernardino, we can pool the courtrooms sharing court reporters affiliated with the civil and criminal divisions and we can backfill with those court reporters as it becomes necessary.”
Slough sought to deflect charges that in planning for the new courthouse in San Bernardino, parking issues had been neglected.
Conceding that “from the beginning we knew parking here is atrocious,” she said she and her staff have been “meeting with the county of San Bernardino and the city of San Bernardino to fix problems that have been in place since the 1980s. We are aware that the city has been working with the county and the district attorney to add a multi-level parking structure off of Arrowhead Avenue south of Third Street.”
She said she and Allen had been mindful that a significant portion of those adding to the parking problem are people coming to court to address traffic citations. “We are taking all of the traffic cases and moving them to Fontana,” which she said would eliminate “single rider vehicles” from the downtown San Bernardino district altogether.
Slough downplayed suggestions that concentrating criminal cases at the Rancho Cucamonga Courthouse would have a deleterious impact on the city of Rancho Cucamonga by serving as a magnet for the county’s criminal element.
“They are already there,” Slough said of criminal defendants in Rancho Cucamonga. “We already have death penalty cases, murder trials being heard there along with serious felonies. A huge segment of our criminal calendar is already being heard in Rancho [Cucamonga]
Allen said he did not believe there will be an exodus of lawyers and a closure of their offices from around the civic center in Rancho Cucamonga or an influx of bail bond businesses into the area. “Bail bondsmen will open up around the jails and the holding facilities, not the courthouses,” he said. “Apparently there are people in Rancho Cucamonga who do not want all these criminal cases transferred there. What are they saying? ‘We only want high class civil people here?’”
Both Slough and Allen bridled at the suggestion that any factors other than streamlining the judicial system were factors in formulating the realignment. There was a twang of impatience in Slough’s voice when she responded to the charge that the realignment had as a goal urban renewal in downtown San Bernardino.
“What has happened to the budget over the last five years is the driver,” she said.
“San Bernardino will be getting a new court facility downtown, which is certainly of some benefit to them,” Allen said. “It is a nice facility. San Bernardino is the city where the newest and largest facility is located. But San Bernardino was six years away from bankruptcy in 2006 when I, as the presiding judge, made that decision. The civil case loads were moved to San Bernardino from the desert a few years ago. No one said then that we were moving civil cases there at that time to help the city of San Bernardino.”
Resistance to change is understandable and inevitable, Allen said. The true test of the wisdom of effectuating any change is time, he suggested, referencing a decision he made with regard to how and where the county’s probate cases were heard eight years ago.
“We have to reimagine,” he said. “The way we did business in probate ten years ago was we had it in all of the courts in the county but not as a full assignment to anyone, just as an add-on calendar. Probate was in no way a full assignment, with a half afternoon or afternoon at most in one courtroom. No one judge had developed an expertise in it. It had become the poor step child. My determination when I was presiding judge was to move probate courts from all over the county to Redlands. There was a great outcry. Attorneys complained that their clients could not get there. We went to great lengths to accommodate them and made it so people could go to the courthouse nearest them and appear by means of video hook-up. No one used that. But we set up the probate court in Redlands and now it is seen like sliced bread. Attorneys and their clients alike loved it because they found that we then had two judges devoted to probate who had developed an expertise and knew what they were doing and the lawyers were able to get to know them and know what direction they were going in. Now everyone thinks it was the greatest idea I ever had but that is not how they thought of it at the time.”
Allen said he hoped the realignment would be similarly perceived down the road.
Slough and Allen would not accept the suggestions that they had failed the citizens of the county by opting to realign and redesign the county court system to the convenience of themselves as the court’s executives, the judges and the court employees at the expense of the citizens of the county.
“Judge Slough’s efforts have been unparalleled,” Allen said
Citizens, lawyers and whatever discontented judges and court employees there are need to look past the immediate inconvenience of making the change, Slough said. “We have seen historically that cycles come and go and some have created chaos in our court system,” she said. “What I am trying to do is put our operations on a solid foundation so that we can weather those cycles and keep providing the utmost level of service even if we are in the position of the governor and the legislature taking away even more of our money.”