Multiple Efforts To Rescind County Court System Realignment Yet Ongoing

Efforts to rescind the court realignment put in place in San Bernardino County’s judicial system by Presiding Judge Marsha Slough last May are continuing, including a move to have the legislature add new code sections to the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002 to ensure the public’s ready access to the courts is ensured.
Last May amid widespread protest by elected officials. lawyers and members of the public, the realignment of San Bernardino County courts as was formulated by San Bernardino County Presiding Judge Marsha Slough was effectuated.
The realignment entailed transferring all civil cases countywide to the new San Bernardino Justice Center, which is located at 247 West Third Street and contains 35 courtrooms within its 11 floors. San Bernardino district criminal cases, which were previously heard in the San Bernardino Central Courthouse built in 1927, are also being tried in the new San Bernardino Justice Center.
West Valley Superior Courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga, which was formerly a venue for both civil and criminal cases originating on the west end of the county, is now devoted almost entirely to criminal cases and hearings on both civil and domestic violence restraining order matters, including those arising on the county’s west end and other felony and misdemeanor cases from the county’s central district which were previously routed to the Fontana Courthouse. A small portion of the criminal cases once heard in Fontana are now being adjudicated in San Bernardino. The historic San Bernardino Courthouse remains as the forum for family law cases. The Fontana Courthouse has 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 Victorville Courthouse remains a venue for High Desert family law cases. The Joshua Tree Courthouse remains in operation. The Barstow Courthouse, where previously all order of criminal and civil cases were heard, is now open two days a week exclusively for traffic cases.
From the time she first proposed the realignment as a way to deal with dwindling revenue provisions from the state for court operations in October 2013, the wisdom of Slough’s transformation of the county court system and the centralization of all civil courts in downtown San Bernardino has been sharply questioned.
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.
In the months prior to and after the initiation of the realignment, a group of legal professionals, including lawyers and former judges, importuned Slough to reconsider what she was contemplating and then what she had done. They also sought, and obtained, support from county elected officials in their efforts to have Slough rethink the change she had imposed on the county’s residents.
The Rancho Cucamonga City Council, which on April 2, 2014 adopted a resolution calling upon the managers of the court system in San Bernardino County to preserve its branch courts unless it could be demonstrated the closures have created a savings of at least ten percent of the court system’s budget, went further, asking 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, 2014 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 members, yet it operates with only 43 percent of that suggested staffing. The state has already closed the Chino, Needles, Twin Peaks, Redlands 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 resolutions were provided to local members of the state legislature, who were requested to use their authority to explore legislation that would either return funding to the courts and render the economies contained in Slough’s realignment unnecessary or mandate that the court’s must maintain reasonable local access to their facilities.
Among those contacted was California State Senator Mike Morrell. He has carried no legislation relating to redressing the conflation of the court system. However, in November, Marc Steinorth, who was a member of the Rancho City Council that passed the resolution in April, was elected to the California Assembly.
This week, Steinorth told the Sentinel, “The court closures throughout San Bernardino County has resulted in unacceptable conditions for citizens seeking access to justice. I am seeking every possible solution to help our county court to remain open. The solutions that I am advocating are commonsense approaches that will give our courts a better opportunity to service our county residents.”
Specifically, Steinorth said, he intends to author a bill this year that will “raise the 1% reserve cap to 12%. Currently state law limits local trial court reserves to just 1 percent of prior-year expenditures. At the end of the year, any court that has funds above 1% is swept back up into the state’s general fund. This 1 percent cap has resulted in cash-flow problems that hurt the courts’ operational ability, especially when there are unexpected costs.”
Furthermore, Steinorth said, “I am advocating legislation that would authorize ten new San Bernardino County Superior Court judges and two appellate court judges. If judges are placed in our county court, it comes with additional funding and staff. The need for additional judges is critical in order to reduce backlogs and accelerate access to the courts. In the entire state, the Fourth Appellate District in Riverside, which serves San Bernardino County, is identified as one of the highest-need courts for an appellate judge.”
Steinorth said that San Bernardino County was among the hardest hit jurisdictions by the parsimony imposed on the courts. Nevertheless, he said, courts up and down the state were being crunched, and for that reason he believes there is an impetus for the legislature to act to reduce the burden on the courts generally.
“The unprecedented budget cuts since 2008 have closed 52 courthouses statewide,” Steinorth said. “The governor has proposed funding increases for trial courts by about 5% compared to last year. However, this falls well short of what trial courts need to tread water and stop further courthouse closures and staff reductions.”
He continued, “The San Bernardino Superior Court is the second most underresourced and underfunded court in the state. The court’s judicial positions meet just 60% of the court’s 2014 assessed judicial need. Since 2006/07, the Twin Peaks, Redlands, Chino, Needles, and Big Bear courthouses have closed. The court’s current number of staff just meets 63% of the 2013 resource allocation assessment. Each court’s clerk’s office is now closed to the public at 3 pm. The workload-based allocation need in San Bernardino is $137.8 million but the court received just $75.1 million.”
Meanwhile, a group of attorneys based in San Bernardino County have formulated proposed new code sections relating the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002, which they claim would go a good part of the distance in preventing further erosion of the court system, particularly in San Bernardino County.
That proposal calls for the addition of Section 70395 which states “The responsibility and authority granted to the Judicial Council under Section 70391 and Administrative Office of the Courts under Section 70392 and delegable by the Judicial Council or the Administrative Office of the Courts to the local courts shall be subject to the standards and procedures set forth in this Section.
(a) In exercising any responsibility, authority or power to locate, relocate, deploy or redeploy trial court facilities, the Judicial Council shall consider the following criteria, among others, in its deliberations and decision:
(1) The impact of any change on the public’s access to the justice system.
(2) The financial benefit of the change to the local trial court as compared to the financial detriment of the change to users of the court facility.
(3) The environmental impact of the change.
(4) The impact on disadvantaged users of the court facility.
(5) Travel burdens imposed upon users of the court.
(6) The effect upon the safety of users of the court.
(7) The financial impact on the community acquiring or losing the trial court facility.
(8) The history of the use of branch courts in the local communities.
(9) Geographic features of the County.
(10) Delays in resolving disputes and other court business.
(b) Branch courts shall not be closed or their use be curtailed or limited unless, as a direct result of such change, the local court achieves net savings of ten percent or more of its annual budget.
(c) The decision to close trial court facilities or to move them shall not be taken by the Judicial Council or by the Administrative Office of the Courts or by the local judiciary without consultation with and advice from local public officials as follows:
(1) The Administrative Office of the Courts shall call, notice and convene a meeting of local public officials and such meeting shall be open to the community. Citizens of the community shall be allowed to comment at the meeting. The meeting shall be called at an appropriate time and place, and sufficiently noticed in advance so that members of the public are aware of it.
(2) The local public officials shall include the mayors or council persons of at least three cities affected by the proposed changes, as appointed by those cities, at least two members of the County Board of Supervisors as appointed by the Board of Supervisors, two members of the local judiciary and one representative of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
(A) The Judicial Council shall determine the cities affected by the movement of court facilities.
(B) In the absence of special circumstances, the committee should not exceed nine persons.
(3) The local community meeting or meetings shall be presided over by a chair person who shall be the representative of the Administrative Office of the Courts, if available, and if not then by the person designated by the Board of Supervisors.
(4) The representative of the Administrative Office of the Courts or substitute chair shall prepare a written summary of the proceedings, submit it to the local officials who served on the committee and who may add their comments and then the representative shall submit the report with comments to the Judicial Council. The revised summary shall be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the community where the local court facilities proposed to be closed are located and posted on the court’s website al least 30 days before the public meetings required by this statute.
(d) Any delegation of responsibility, authority or power to the Administrative Office of the Courts or by the Administrative Office of the Courts shall be subject to the same rules, standards, policies, procedures, guidelines and limitations as apply to the Judicial Council.
(e) Any delegation of the responsibility, authority or power to locate, relocate, deploy or redeploy court facilities may be delegated to the local trial court that may exercise such responsibility, authority or power in conjunction with the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts and only acting in compliance with this section.

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