Surprise! Turns Out Court Closures Have A Negative Effect

In case those who support the court closures forget who have been affected most by their decision to close the courts once a month, they need only look to people like Ms. Lori Mattingly who shared her first hand experience with the Modesto Bee on what a closed courtroom door means to her.

Nearly two years into her divorce proceedings, Lori Mattingly hit a wall. Or rather, the locked doors of the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse.

Mattingly, 50, showed up to file paperwork the same day court workers took their first state-imposed furlough day — one in a series that will last through at least July.

The halls of justice close the third Wednesday of each month, affecting all state courts in an effort to shrink a $361 million courts budget deficit.

Since being locked out that September day, Mattingly has noticed the courthouse has been busier, with longer lines and wait times.

“You get in a routine, going there so many times,” Mattingly said. “It was very frustrating. Now, it’s busier and more of a hassle.”

And aside from the public, it goes without saying that those who work in the courts have also seen a negative effect with a backlog affecting attorneys, court deputies, and courtroom staff.

“It’s legal triage,” said Peter Stavrianoudakis, president of the Stanislaus County Criminal Bar Association and a deputy public defender.

“Police officers aren’t taking a furlough day and arresting … less people (that week),” he said. “The small amount of time we spend assisting and advising our clients is now dramatically reduced. Those clients get less service than the other weeks because we simply have less time to spend with each person.”

Well, if people think there’s a backlog now, just wait till next year if things remain as bad as some predict.  If the AOC continues to fund other projects and ask to close courts on more days, well backlog won’t be the word that I’d use to describe what’ll happen.

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14 responses to “Surprise! Turns Out Court Closures Have A Negative Effect

  1. Obi-Wan Kenobi

    My friend you are seeing only the tip of a very expansive iceberg breaking water.

    It stands to reason that if you make voters stand in these record-long lines and only man half the traffic windows, those voters are going to remember that come voting time and down in flames goes a 6 billion (you can bet it will be 10 billion in a few years) dollar court construction bond.

    “Just why do you need a new court when you don’t staff the one you have?” they will rightfully ask.

    While they’re likely suffering just visiting, they will recall we have to work there and until those offices are manned properly, with decades shorter lines that bond is dead on arrival.

    This is pretty much an AOC staff view of things and something that myself and my peers are concerned about.

    We don’t believe its on the AOC Management or Judicial Councils radar at all.

    I admit to being uninformed here as to what they think or how they view it. Shrill? You decide.

    You can’t pulverize voters with expensive citations (and 50% court construction penalty assessments) that are due in 21 days (uh, some of us work for the courts and took a pay cut and only get paid once a month…..) and then make them stand in a 4 hour long traffic line waiting for windows that are only half-manned and then stick your hand out to the voters for 10 billion dollars and claim you have no money.

    This myopic view alone will kill any chance of a bond offering unless we reform the underlying processes to adapt and make our courts less visited places to the public through payment plans on courtesy notices.

    Being draconian and making people choose between feeding their families and paying a ticket will weigh heavily on voters minds.

  2. Welcome to the Brave New World thanks to the Chief Justice, the Judicial Council and the AOC.

    If one goes to the Stanislaus County Superior Court Web site one will notice that they start off with their mission statement which says, amongst other ideals, that “The Court will be accessible to all persons.”

    Right under that one will see that the business hours of the Court are from 8:00 in the morning until 2:00 in the afternoon. This includes Family Law, Civil, Criminal, and Small Claims. Traffic, the money maker, is open until 4:00 in the afternoon.

    Then scroll down and you can find the information that there has been a fee increase.

    Classic: reduce the court hours to 6 hours a day and then increase the fees. Justice Hill just sent a letter to the Modesto Bee in which he bemoaned the fact that people cannot pay their fines online in Stanislaus Countyand that was one of the reasons we needed CCMS. Worry not Good Justice: you can pay your fine on line in Stanislaus County.

  3. Obi, the courthouse construction bonds are lease-revenue bonds (not general obligation bonds) & thus do not go before the voters.

  4. At the same time the Elkins Committee is asking us all to devote at least 20% of our resources to Family Law, we are facing employee layoffs and lines around the block. Micromanagement by the AOC and their mind numbing daily requests for completion of push-poll type surveys and questionnaires designed to support their goals make it difficult for people at the local level to get their jobs done. By the way, our job is to serve the public, not the AOC. Unquestionably we are in a State financial crisis, however the Judicial Council and AOC management are doing an extremely poor job of setting priorities and administering this crisis. Closure has made things much worse. Unfortunately, much more is on the way…

  5. Omerta: It’s not surprising that Justice Hill, occupier of the Hilton’s skyscraping presidential suite at last June’s Judicial Council blowout, should still be pushing California Case Management System (CCMS). When you’re as high up the tower as the good Justice, the taxpayers lining up down below to foot the bill for that billion dollar boondoggle must look like little ants.

  6. Thank you for sharing Ms. Mattingly’s story. Can’t wait to see what the AOC’s spin doctors will make of her experience at Stanislaus Superior. Those AOC PR physicians are great at CPR (Court Pulminary Resuscitation). You’ve got Doc Silver Fox, rumored to answer only to the Chief; Doc GQ, rehired for his way with words during the famous freeze; and Doc PC-BVD rumored to be a crack social networker. Great work, Doctors. Loved your letters, editorials, and survey!

  7. Hey, I think you on the Judicial side should be furloughed the first three fridays of every month just like us on the Executive side. When that happens then I will feel sorry for you guys. Want to see long lines….come visit DMV! Boo hoo you big babies!

    • justinianscode

      That’s an interesting notion, equating access to the courts (a civil right covered – among other places – in the First, Sixth, Seventh and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution) with access to the DMV.

      Good luck explaining that one to a battered woman seeking a domestic violence protective order or to a destitute family applying for an emergency stay of eviction, only to find that the courthouse doors are closed on what is otherwise a work day. Or how about having to be the one who tells a murder victim’s family that the trial will be delayed because someone thought that keeping the DMV open was just as important as providing access to the courts.

      Not everything the government does is of equal importance.

      • To the people in this article, access to DMV was important. I don’t think that their needs should be valued less than that of another. What is important to one person may not be as important to another.

        http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20090206/ARTICLES/902060266?Title=DMV-closure-hits-hard

        Further, you don’t know what kind of impact this may have on the lives of people. A scenario could be that a person lost a job and was so frustrated with the situation that he/she took it out on their child, parent, or spouse. The financial stress might be the breaking point for that person so with it comes domestic violence, suicide, or murder. Sometimes something that may be insignificant to you may not be so to another. So, yes, in some cases it is equally as important.

  8. Amen, Justinian!

    And I’d like to step up and say that the AOC “spin doctors” Oldtimer mentions really ARE good at what they do. It’s their job and they are professionals everyone of them. Can’t see that as a fault. Too bad they don’t have better material to work with right now.

  9. My take is a little different. When the AOC decided to use closures as a cost savings measure, they did so hoping there would be articles like the one referenced above. They knew there would be impacts like this and will attempt to use the completely foreseeble hue and cry as political fodder. As an analogy, the AOC is Brer Rabbit and the court closures are the equivalent of the briar patch. “Oh please Mistah Legislator, don’t make us close the courts. Closing the courts is our last resort. Please don’t make us do that”.

    In October the AOC spent all available funds that might have been used for operations in 10-11 on CCMS and the TCTF and special fund balances are negligible. The only other available source of additional funds for operations is SB 1407. Judge O’Malley got 50/58 PJ’s to oppose using this money for operations.

    This perfectly positions the AOC to go to the legis and argue for a restoration of funding because: 1) the advers impacts of closures on the administration of justice are too great (there are currently two AOC surveys circulating for the purpose of gathering this information) 2) all available money (TCTF, TCIF, etc.) has been spent on CCMS 3) The vast majority of courts oppose using SB 1407 funds for operations, and 4) there are no other cost savings measures available (especially since the AOC will continue to fund CCMS and court construction).

    The AOC will argue that in order to avoid continued closures/furloughs (or possibly additional ones) the legis must restore funding to the branch. In what is a brilliant move, the AOC will have the support of SEIU, the state bar, CJA and the sheriffs’ association because they all oppose the closures. In addition, the AOC will parade the Ms. Mattingly’s of the world in front of some budget committee to highlight how the public suffers. On the other hand, the AOC will also have the support of the construction trade unions and the building industry, who oppose the use of SB 1407 money for operations because it will delay courthouse construction.

    The closures were all part of a well thought out strategy to obtain restoration of funding while preserving the CCMS project and construction funds. The strategy highligts why the AOC/JC were so motiviated to commit the $160 million in special funds and TCTF to CCMS at the October JC meeting. This was the last piece to the puzzle.

    While I disagree with it and question whether the strategy will be successful, it illustrates how the AOC, once it has an objective in mind, will do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. Even if it means closing public access to the courts one day a month for a year. They want CCMS and they want new courthouses. From the perspective of the AOC, any and all means are justified to achieve those goals.

    • justinianscode

      The Chief Justice agrees with your outline of JC/AOC strategy.

      During a talk he gave in September, he said that one thing he’s hoping will result from court closures is that it shows the other two branches just how important the courts are. Such a blatantly political move is cynical at best. To close the courts in order to send a message to the Governor and Legislature (even if just as partial motivation) is more than cynical, though; it is a violation of the public trust.

  10. Boy are you right on Moneywatcher.

  11. Moneywatcher, this may have been correct in theory before the legislative hearing, but is it correct today? What incentive does the legislature have now to help a branch that was unable or unwilling to provide basic cost information? I think the game has changed dramatically. And shell games only work for so long. Someone gets caught, or is asked to leave the subway station.