It’s presidential campaign season, meaning it’s time to talk about whether government should be run more like a business. Marla Anderson, presiding judge of Monterey County Superior Court, says that might be smart in some areas of government, but there’s a key difference in the court system: It’s obligated to absorb everyone who files a lawsuit or gets charged with a crime.
“A school can say a class is full,” Anderson says. “We cannot turn away our customers. Our doors are open to the public. We can’t restrict access to justice.”
That’s according to the Constitution, but not budget constraints. This year, Monterey County Superior Court is 12 percent under-budget, and its reserve is 16 percent under-budget.
Staffing is down by 21 percent, from 236 full-time employees pre-recession to 179 today. And the courthouses themselves need some love.
The King City courthouse is indefinitely closed. The replacement South County courthouse planned for Greenfield is on the California Judicial Council’s “indefinitely delayed” list. The staff elevator in the Monterey courthouse has been broken since 2012. A small annex courthouse, across the street from the main Salinas courthouse, can’t handle most felony cases because there’s no secure entry for inmates.
The city of Greenfield donated $1.5 million worth of land to the state, and spent $3.5 million building sidewalks and extending roads to make the new South County courthouse possible. “It was ready for shovel in the ground,” Anderson says.
In 2012, that courthouse, along with 10 others in the state, was placed on the “indefinitely delayed” list. Anderson helped approve a downsized $30 million project, reducing the number of courtrooms from three to two, cutting estimated construction costs by $19 million, but still the project languishes.
Greenfield Mayor John Huerta is scheduled to meet Sept. 24 with Judicial Council Capital Program Officer William Guerin in San Francisco. Huerta will ask him to push the project forward.
“The need is now,” Huerta says. “Everyone in South County needs to travel to court.” He says people opt to pay traffic tickets instead of challenge them because of the long haul to Marina, and child care is difficult for people who need to attend family law hearings in Monterey.
There is some good news on the court-funding front. Monterey County Superior Court teamed up with two other counties – Napa and Santa Clara – to share the administrative costs of launching a new web-based document filing system.
That system is expected to go live Oct. 13 for civil, small claims, family law and all other filings except criminal court, which will come a year later. By spring, court officials expect their courtrooms to be mostly paperless. (If you’re a lawyer or representing yourself in court, you’ll still have to file hard copies, but then those will be scanned, meaning you can view your file – and whatever documents your opponent has filed – on a screen in the courthouse without waiting for attorneys and clerks to pass around your case file.)
And that broken elevator, down for three years, is scheduled for repair works starting in November. “It’s just an old elevator,” Anderson says.