To Reopen Courthouses and Restore Court Services, County Supervisors Seek More State Funding | News

The Palo Alto courthouse has been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, and during that time Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian witnessed firsthand the public’s frustration with the situation. Sitting in his courthouse office at 270 Grant Ave., Simitian can sometimes hear knocking on the locked glass doors. When he goes to answer, he finds people who don’t know where they are supposed to appear for court hearings or how they can access services.

When he received a call from someone who couldn’t reach anyone at the courthouse regarding jury duty, Simitian took the phone number the person had been given and tried to call himself.

“The phone rang for 45 minutes with no answer,” he said.

These courthouse closures, which have excluded the public from not only the Palo Alto facility, but also the Morgan Hill courthouse for the past year and a half, have prompted the County Board of Supervisors to urge the state to provide more funding.

On Tuesday, the council voted to direct county lobbyists to focus on securing additional state funding for the Santa Clara County Superior Court. The unanimous vote came after a discussion with the best members of the court, which said its staff had been exhausted for more than a decade and had to continually look for creative ways to keep services running.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further reduced resources. The court’s attempts to make its services accessible have had mixed results. Those who tried to listen to court proceedings via one of the public access teleconference lines during the pandemic were often met with tinny audio and distant voices, which made it almost impossible to follow what was happening. past.

Simitian, who was joined in his referral to the council by council chairman Mike Wasserman, said he had three sets of concerns related to the current closures and reduced services: their impact on the work of the court; the practical challenge of navigating the system for the county’s 2 million residents; and the continued loss of public confidence in democratic institutions. The erosion of trust includes the court when it is perceived to be distant, insensitive and inaccessible, he said.

“It can only lead to the sense of alienation and loss of faith that people have in their democratic institutions. … To me, that’s something we should all be concerned about,” he said.

The Superior Court is run by the state, not the county. Judge Beth McGowen, associate presiding judge of the Santa Clara County Court, noted at the council meeting that budget cuts in the court system have reduced staffing by more than 20 percent; there are now 100 fewer employees.

As a result, the court has a large backlog of criminal and civil cases and had to move cases normally heard in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill in San Jose. (The Morgan Hill Courthouse reopened in August for trials.)

The court has focused on what it calls “consolidation” to keep all services running. He kept the Family Court Self Help Center open and kept the San Jose clerk’s office open to the public to access records. The court is also preparing to reopen or launch other services, such as offering same-day mediation now that the moratorium on housing evictions has ended, and resuming operations of the Traffic Division, a she declared.

But the Palo Alto courthouse is expected to remain closed until at least the spring of 2022, and courts also aren’t expected to “return to normal” for some time, McGowen said.

What it looks like might be different than before, as the courts leave in place some of the online services that appear to have worked during the pandemic.

Rebecca Fleming, the court’s chief executive, said the cut in state budget allocations isn’t new, but the court has suffered significant state budget cuts since at least 2009.

Simitian noted that North County had a Sunnyvale courthouse, which closed, and the court moved small claims and traffic courts from Palo Alto to Santa Clara and San Jose.

The continued closure of the courthouse places a particular burden on residents who need it most but who may not have ready access to transportation to San Jose due to disability or financial hardship, he noted.

Mark M. Gagnon