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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judicial Council Tosses Humboldt a Life Line

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Humboldt Superior Court will get a $110,000 loan to help cover the cost of trying 24 homicide cases filed this year in Humboldt County.

California's Judicial Council voted at its year-end meeting to give the court the money it needs to get through the unanticipated volume of murder trials.

"I think it definitely shows a meeting of the unexpected and unanticipated emergency circumstances," said council member Judge David Buckley of Los Angeles.

Humboldt's head clerk Kim Bartleson told the council by phone that the court was looking at a case load of 20 homicide filings as of Nov. 3, 2015, but since then they'd had two or three more. Eighteen of those cases are currently headed to trial.

According to a funding request filed with the council, the county usually sees about eleven homicides a year. To meet the demand, the court consolidated non-trial hearings into fewer courtrooms, and judges are overseeing two trials a day simultaneously, in the morning and afternoon.

Bartleson said the county has given the court some additional space it was originally planning on leasing. "So we will have a place for non-jury, non-security-issue cases to move and free up some courtrooms," she said.

The meeting was the first ever to be videocast online.

Earlier in the day, the council also heard a report from Judicial Council staff director Martin Hoshino, who recently decided to close the staff's regional office in Burbank, outside Los Angeles.

Hoshino's announcement followed a January audit that questioned spending on office space, and suggested that the bureaucracy look into moving its San Francisco headquarters to Sacramento, the seat of state government. San Francisco real estate is the most expensive in California.

The move is also in response to findings by the Strategic Evaluation Committee, a group of judges appointed by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in 2011 to make sure that the staff, then called the Administrative Office of the Courts, was fulfilling its intended purpose of serving the courts without wasting funds.

Judge Charles Wachob, who chaired the committee, said Hoshino's decision squared with what the committee had in mind. "We are on track in terms of meeting the directives of the council adopted as a result of the committee recommendations," Wachob said in an address to the council. The group had suggested that the Burbank lease be re-evaluated, and that the AOC should consider relocating its main offices based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Hoshino briefly shared the results of that 424-page analysis, discreetly posted on the council's website almost two weeks before the meeting. He added that he planned to go into more detail at the next meeting in February.

The study done by consultant JBS Associates looked at six scenarios involving various configurations of the staff's offices in Burbank, San Francisco and Sacramento. Hoshino said that while some appeared to be more immediately cost-effective than others, he was thinking long-term when he decided to recommend the council close Burbank but keep San Francisco open.

"When you start to move things around you think you're solving one problem by moving into a space at a lower cost but you could be creating a liability on the other side, because you still have an obligation to be paying off the rent in the facility that you are leaving," he said.

"I selected the scenario that I felt gave us some fiscal savings and in addition to that, though, protected service levels for the courts that we support as well as the public. I understand some people just want to look at the fiscal parts of it but to me this is an operations and business decision and it is the most responsible decision in my judgment."

Not all were pleased with the decision.

After the study's release the Alliance of California Judges, a longstanding critic of wasteful spending and questionable policy judgments by the court bureaucracy, said in an email, "It's obvious and commonly understood that it's cheaper to do business in Sacramento than in San Francisco. No 424-page report can dispute that fact. The alliance stands in solidarity with the strategic evaluation committee and the state auditor in calling for the central planners to relocate to Sacramento and apply all cost savings to our struggling local courts.

"That move should have been done four years ago and we should not have wasted unknown amounts of money on a staff engineered and result oriented report," the alliance said.

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