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Punishing the Public

The courts are ultimately human institutions, based on conflict and resolution.

They do not make cars, they do not cook hamburgers, they do not grow grapes or walnuts. They serve the people, as part of our democratic government.

And the people need the courts for a great range of tasks, resolving civil disputes peacefully, deciding if someone has violated society's criminal rules and a variety of related and often mundane tasks that require a trip to the courthouse.

So when courts cut back on service to the people, and in particular when they cut their public hours, they do damage to their reason for being, their raison d'etre.

An article on our page last week reported on a big group of California courts, led by Santa Clara Superior Court in San Jose, that are cutting their public hours back to those kept by bankers for much of the last century.

The cutbacks in public hours were announced a couple months after passage of a state budget that did not give the courts all the money they wanted.

Closing at two or three o'clock in the afternoon, as those courts are doing, without doubt punishes the public.

The common assumption would be that short hours are required by smaller budgets. But that assumption would be wrong.

The remarkable thing about the story by CNS reporter Maria Dinzeo was that it showed the early closures have no fiscal justification -- they save no money. Because the court staff continues to work a full day.

In that perversion of policy -- where the staff hours stay exactly the same and the public hours get sharply cut -- there is only one effect. The singular effect of the policy is to make it more of a hassle to deal with the court, to make it harder on those poor suckers standing in line.

So why would a court do it.

The stated reason is that it allows clerks to catch up with their work. But that justification does not stand up to reason or experience.

The same number of documents are still filed, the same number of people still need to pay tickets.

Indeed, in Sacramento, a court where the staff had fallen far behind in their work and are now caught up, the presiding judge said cutting public hours does not help. "You turn out at the same place," he said.

In other words, there is no good reason to short the public on hours. So why?

Since the clear and uncontested outcome of the policy is to make the public suffer. And since it is clear and uncontested that the policy will not save money.

Then the only conclusion is that those courts shortening their public hours think it is OK to adopt a policy that has no benefit but does punish the public, after a budget disappointment.

The other more benign interpretation is that they don't know what they're doing.

To be fair to the staff and administrators, such a policy could not be put in place without the approval of their leading judges.

It is they who should know better.

Just as dark is contrasted by light, so the negative effects of shorting the public are clearly outlined by the positive effects of keeping full public hours.

"It has one of the most immediate impacts on the public," said Winifred Younge Smith, Oakland's presiding judge. "It affects the public's ability to access justice and take care of their business."

To the same effect, Robert Hight, the presiding judge in Sacramento, said, "Our belief is that you should have the counter hours as broad and as long as possible."

Compounding the bad policy from the court in San Jose and a few others was the decision by the Judicial Council to not talk about it.

At the council meeting last week, the early closures were set as an "information only" item, meaning they were not discussed or voted upon. And the council is the body that is supposed to advise on policy, precisely what was needed.

I was surprised by that collective wave of dismissal. The chief justice had just named a big group of new judges to the council and appointed a new director to head the 800-member staff, formerly known as the Administrative Office of the Courts.

But the refusal to discuss cuts in public hours -- decisions that punish the people of California without fiscal justification -- that sounded in every way like the council of old.

Waving the issue away was in my mind a sign of both arrogance and deafness to the needs of the people. And there is nothing new in that.

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