(May 13) The San Bernardino County Justice Center in downtown San Bernardino began operations on May 12, meeting an opening deadline that essentially ensures that the realignment of San Bernardino County courts will be effectuated, as Presiding Judge Marsha Slough intends, by the end of the month.
The 11-story San Bernardino County Justice Center located at 247 West Third Street in the county seat, plans for which were first set on paper more than seven years ago and which has been under construction for three years, is the linchpin in Slough’s realignment plan.
The realignment will entail transferring all civil cases countywide to the new San Bernardino Justice Center, which contains 35 courtrooms within its 11 floors. 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 almost entirely 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.
Some have questioned the wisdom of Slough’s vision for the transformation of the county court system and the centralization of all civil courts in downtown San Bernardino.
Far flung San Bernardino County, which spans 20,105 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. Slough’s change is imposing a tremendous logistical burden on many of the county’s citizens who need to access the courts. Driving distance from Needles to San Bernardino is 212 miles, with an average one-way traveling time of three hours and nine minutes.
As a consequence of the realignment, the city of Rancho Cucamonga is suffering the loss of the privilege of serving as host to a major portion of the county’s civil cases and simultaneously bracing for the influx of massive numbers of criminal defendants, as well as their associates and family members into its downtown district. The Rancho Cucamonga City Council was the first major public entity to register official opposition to the proposed realignment. On April 2 it adopted a resolution calling upon the managers of the court system in San Bernardino County to preserve its branch courts unless it can be demonstrated the closures will result in a savings of at least ten percent of the court system’s budget.
The city council unanimously endorsed the resolution and gave direction to city staff to carry the resolution to local members of the state legislature and insist on a response from them. The council further directed Mayor Dennis Michael to take up the court realignment issue with the San Bernardino Association of Governments, the county’s transportation agency and regional planning board which has as its voting directors mayors or council members from each of the county’s 24 cities as well as all five members of the board of supervisors.
Michael did so and on May 7 all 29 members of the SANBAG board considered the resolution. A staff report by SANBAG Director of Legislative and Public Affairs Wendy Strack stated, “For a county spanning 20,000 square miles, the proximity of courthouses to those with matters pending before the court carries significant cost and time pressures for impacted parties. San Bernardino County is already facing the largest shortage of judges in the state of California. According to the statewide judicial needs study released in October 2012, the San Bernardino Superior Court system should have 156 judges and more than 1,500 staff member, yet it operates with only 43 percent of that suggested staffing. The state has already closed the Chino, Needles, and Big Bear courthouses and shuttered courtrooms in Joshua Tree. The reduction in service and pending closure of courtrooms in Barstow will mean that crime victims, jurors, law enforcement officers, court personnel, and others are forced to drive many more miles to make court appearances. Our cash-strapped local governments are already struggling to provide basic services to residents. The overtime and fuel costs associated with longer court trips will create even more budget pain for our 24 cities and the county of San Bernardino.”
The resolution was endorsed by all 29 members of the SANBAG board.
City officials have met with State Senator Mike Morrell, who has indicated a willingness to seek a legislative resolution of the matter.
Slough’s critics maintain the shuttering of the county’s satellite courtrooms and the centralization of civil courtrooms in San Bernardino will not provide significant monetary savings and merely reduces the administrative burden of maintaining a geographically dispersed system. That administrative convenience will translate into far greater costs to be borne by the county’s governmental agencies and the county’s residents, they maintain.
Slough, however, in March told the Sentinel that the realignment was driven by fiscal necessity in that the court system in San Bernardino County had seen its 2008-09 budget of $110 million drop to $99.2 million in 2009-10, move up to $108 million in 2010-11, dip to $103 million in 2011-12, and then suffer a precipitous decline to $84 million in 2012-13.
“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,” Slough said. “The rationale behind this may not seem clear but… We are doing it this way because it allows us to focus our resources where we need to focus them.”