SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - After hearing grim reports of how trial courts are reacting to proposed budget plans, California's Judicial Council approved a cost-saving measure that lets courts hear traffic cases via remote video.
The pilot project will take some pressure off of Fresno County, which has recently shut down seven outlying courthouses in rural areas because it could not afford to keep them open.
Advocates of the project, which allows defendants in traffic cases to make court appearances remotely, noted that defendants often have to travel 120 miles for arraignments and hearings. Criminal defense attorneys and court interpreters meanwhile staunchly oppose the constitutionality of the program, saying defendants have the right to confront police officers in court and have an interpreter on hand.
But council judges saw the new rule as a way of solving Fresno's current access crisis, and generally making courts more accessible to residents of rural counties.
Justice Marvin Baxter of Fresno said the council shouldn't "micromanage" courts trying to find creative solutions to budget problems.
"When I started my career as a lawyer in Fresno, I used to go out to those rural courts," Baxter said. "I would drive out to Firebaugh. I would drive out to Coalinga. I would drive out to Kerman, and these were major undertakings."
"And if your car happened to break down halfway between Fresno and Firebaugh, you might be lost for a few days," he added, to laughter around the council table. "And if someone suggested to me at that time that, within my lifetime, those courts would be eliminated, I would have bet the ranch against it. But it did happen, and it really created a very difficult situation."
He added: "They did what they had to do. This proposal is limited to traffic infractions. There are greater problems out there. I think the last thing we want to do is to micromanage the Fresno Superior Court. Those judges are perfectly capable of hearing these arguments on confrontation and other related arguments and presumably they will make just decisions based on the facts before them."
Assistant Presiding Judge Ira Kaufman of Plumas County said he thought most people would prefer to appear remotely in traffic infraction cases.
"If you took a vote of the general populace and said to them, 'You can come to court and try your case, or you could actually stay home and have a video camera and try your traffic citation in your living room,' how many people would go for that," Kaufman asked. "I think just about everybody would. I trust the trial judges to develop a way of handling it in their courts and make sure that justice is done and they are not going to let anybody's rights be trampled on."
Fresno's dire financial situation is not unique, as Los Angeles also gears up to close 10 regional courthouses by June. The outlook is equally bleak in other parts of the state, as Judge Allan Hardcastle of Sonoma County said in a presentation earlier in the council meeting that a visit to the Lake County court revealed low morale among court employees.
"Their issues are the same that we have statewide, but it is profound when you go to a county and see the dramatic affect," Hardcastle said. "They are only down 11 employees, so that doesn't sound like much until you realize that that is more than 35 percent of their workforce. Their staff morale, unfortunately, is extremely low. What is really sad - I think it is unacceptable - they have folks that are 'full-time employees' who are on food stamps. That is sad to hear. Many of them got tearful in the two-hour meeting that they had with me. They are very upset. They feel they cannot achieve what they believe to be access to justice."
In the face of ongoing budget cuts and little relief from Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget package for this fiscal year, the council also decided to scrap plans to ask the governor and Legislature for more judgeships.
"It is more important to keep the courts open," Justice Baxter said. "It is more important to provide the basics of assess to justice and keep the focus on those primary issues."
Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County cast one of only two dissenting votes on the matter, the other belonging to Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside.
"It sends the wrong message," Rosenberg said. "It sends a message that filling the needs of the judiciary for the needs of the state and the public is of a lower priority. I don't want to keep deferring this. There are courts out there like Riverside that are grossly under-judged, if you will. They need many more judges because of the growth of the caseload and growth of population."
Earlier in the meeting, Rosenberg pointed out that the judiciary accounts for 2.2 percent of the state's overall budget, compared to 3 percent years earlier.
"The judiciary's workload has not decreased," Rosenberg said. "Yet our total support within the state budget has decreased substantially."
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