Courting Justice

Presiding Judge Marla Anderson says county courts improved by making more forms available online, easing the pain of reduced hours.

In photos, Felix Cuevas’ white Volkswagen bug doesn’t look like much, but he spent $2,850 on a paint job to spiff it up to a shiny blue. Dissatisfied with the work detailer Alfredo Garcia did, Cuevas filed a small-claims lawsuit trying to get his money back, and he told the story Oct. 7 in Monterey County Superior Court.

Cuevas spoke in Spanish, though language seemed to be the least of his barriers. A court interpreter translated, but even with photos, Judge Robert O’Farrell seemed confused about the work.

“Is that a gas cap?” O’Farrell said, pointing to a photo. “It’s where the radio used to be,” Cuevas responded.

The details of small-claims cases are often laid out in excruciating detail, giving plaintiffs a few minutes to explain why they think they’ve been ripped off.

With the closure of the King City courthouse on Sept. 23, the calendars of the three other county courthouses – in Salinas, Marina and Monterey – are under pressure to pack in more cases.

“With the same amount of filings, you have to do the same amount of work with fewer employees,” Monterey County Superior Court Presiding Judge Marla Anderson says.

Labor accounts for 79 percent of the county courts’ $21-million budget, which is now facing its sixth consecutive year of cuts. Countywide, the court system has reduced its workforce by 52 positions since 2008.

“When you have to cut, you’re cutting the ability to process the work,” Anderson adds. “It’s far more difficult for people to be heard in a timely fashion.”

Almost simultaneous to the King City closure, the civil division in Monterey reduced hours. The file-viewing room is now open only Monday to Wednesday, and it closes those days at 2pm.

State grants continue to fund interpreters for certain hearings, but many people – like Garcia, the car painter – bring a friend or relative to small claims.

“A friend is probably going to be biased,” court interpreter Daniel DeCamp says. “They may say what they thought their mother or father should’ve. They’ll edit, and they’re not supposed to.”

Carl Hall, of the local Pacific Media Workers Guild of the Communications Workers of America union, which represents 900 court interpreters in California, says budget cuts impact not only the interpreters (who are asking for pay raises), but the justice system, too.

“It’s difficult to maintain quality workforces when administrators are constantly attacking pay and benefits,” he says. “These are the people who make the judicial system function.”  

Labor accounts for 79 percent of the annual county court system's budget, and hours for public file access have been cut back to give the remaining staffers enough time to process incoming paperwork and keep the court calendar moving.

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