Road Trip II

     On a road trip along the Central Coast, I woke up after a meal of rabbit cassoulet and a fine pinot in a restaurant in the central square of Paso Robles, only to return to the same square with a more secular purpose. This time to visit the courthouse.
     Our reporter has been told by the court officials that she can only see new cases on microfiche. She cannot see them in paper form, she must wait until they have been microfiched.
     But next to the room where the microfiche monitors are located is a small room with a big windows and a locked door. To enter, a clerk must buzz you in.
     A sign says the room is for reviewing files, clearly referring to paper files. It confirms my theory that in the past courts commonly developed secure methods to allow reporters, and others, to view paper court records.
     The Paso Robles court is a small branch of San Luis Obispo Superior Court. In the court’s main branch in San Luis Obispo, officials have also told us we cannot see the new cases until they are transferred to microfiche, a process that takes a week or two.
     In addition to arguing that a court is perfectly capable of providing safe access to new cases in paper form, we have also repeatedly said that putting a private company in the position of gatekeeper to the records is a bad idea.
     It creates a monopoly on access.
     Unless the court puts strict limits on how that position can be used, the private operator will wield that monopoly in order to charge lawyers and journalists exorbitant amounts for information.
     That big rule was also confirmed in a small way in the San Luis Obispo courts. A researcher working for a local attorney service told us that her employer has the contract to microfiche the court’s records. She then offered to provide print outs of microfiched cases and charge less than the court charges.
     I preferred not to feed that particular beast.
     But even a tiny operator in a small court is trying to hustle his monopoly over the paper record to make an extra buck.
     The main San Luis Obispo courthouse is a classic and beautiful courthouse built in 1940. It is also comfortably appointed inside. I remark to our bureau chief that judging by appearances, the court does not seem starved for funds.
     This court was also first in line for installation of the final version of the Court Case Management System. That system got its plug pulled last month by the Judicial Council.
     What a leap the San Luis Obispo court wanted to make, all the way from the many decades-old technology of microfiche to the latest technology of e-filing. And what a narrow escape from disaster, given that CCMS is on its way to the junk yard.
     From San Luis Obispo, I drive south 100 miles to Santa Barbara. The court was built in 1929 and the level of craftsmanship that went into the building is unseen today, with ornate and complex tile work and luxurious amounts of dark wood.
     The mural room in the courthouse, that looks for all the world like a nave in a catholic church, is a brazen example of revisionist history.
     The local natives are described as unusually “enlightened” and floor-to-ceiling murals depict the indians working in a friendly and helpful way with gentle conquistadors, all under the radiant heads of Franciscans.
     That might be the way the conquerors saw it. Maybe not the Indians.
     The nearby mission museum notes that diseases brought by the conquistadors, gonorrhea in particular, decimated the Santa Barbara tribe of Chumash indians, killing 9 out of the enlightened 10.
      Mixing the sightseeing with work, I meet with our bureau chief and our reporter in the records room. The access to new cases, while delayed, is much, much better than it used to be. The staff is friendly towards us and complimentary of our reporter.
     It occurs to me only after the fact that we have fought over access in every single one of these courts along the Central Coast, from Santa Cruz to San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara, with excellent results in Santa Cruz, improvement in Santa Barbara and nothing in San Luis Obispo.
     After visiting the courthouse, I have a glass of wine with our bureau chief sitting on the patio of a little restaurant, also with ornate tile, on State Street about a block away. The patio is empty, and there is a light breeze. It is a sunny day, shoppers walk to and fro.
     And with that libation, the road trip is over.
     The bureau chief heads off to the Coachella music festival and I drive south into L.A. traffic, into the mouth of the whale.

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