Satellite courthouse in Burney to shutter, leaving residents to travel to Redding
Posted On: Sep 10, 2014
REDDING, CA - Residents of Shasta County will see their last satellite courthouse close this month, leaving just a main facility in Redding to serve litigants who live in the sprawling, hilly region.
The closure in the unincorporated town of Burney comes as a surprise to some lawyers and judges, who observed that a large mountain sits between the soon-to-be terminated outpost and the Redding location.
The so-called "Hatchet Mountain Pass" makes it challenging for Burney residents to travel to their county seat, especially in the winter when roads are "treacherous," observers say.
"This, I am guessing, is not a decision that was made lightly," said Steven E. Jahr, a former Shasta County judge who still lives in the area on weekends. "It's a reflection on how damaging the budget has been to some courts."
Burney is the latest in a string of small courthouses that have fallen victim to the ongoing budget crunch. A traffic courthouse shared by Plumas and Sierra counties will also close in the beginning of November.
The closures have been especially tough on the state's spread-out counties, such as San Bernardino, where some litigants must now travel hundreds of miles for a hearing. Faced with that prospect, some criminal defendants there have opted to just plead guilty, lawyers have said recently.
Burney is just 50 miles from Redding, but a bus only runs between the two places twice daily on weekdays, not on weekends or holidays.
Others who live near Burney have few public transportation options that can take them to the Redding bus, said James E. Reed, a general practice lawyer who lives in Fall River Mills, near the closing courthouse.
"Poor people just won't be able to make their court appearances, and that's going to get them into even more trouble," Reed said.
The satellite branch currently holds a calendar just one day each month, but locals find the facility convenient to file documents and pay fines, lawyers say.
"The situation has gone from bad to worse," said John M. Kucera, a Redding-based criminal defense lawyer.
He bemoaned the court's limited availability of clerks, whose offices close at 2 p.m. It also takes him three days to receive a response to an email, he said.
"We're drowning here," Kucera said.
Fourteen employees of Shasta County Superior Court will be laid off by Sept. 25, the same day Burney shutters. They will join 12 temporary court staffers who were terminated earlier this year in the wake of yet another budget shortfall.
The cuts come during a precipitous uptick in criminal filings - in the past year, mental health filings shot up 67 percent, habeas corpus writs rose 41 percent and felonies went up 25 percent, said Shasta Court Executive Officer Melissa Fowler-Bradley.
Meanwhile, civil appeals fell 33 percent, small claims dropped 14 percent, and limited civil filings went down 1 percent.
"We just have fewer resources to devote to the civil side after trying to keep up with the enormous increase in criminal filings," Fowler-Bradley said.
Since June, Santa Clara, Santa Barbara, Fresno, Glenn, Humboldt, Kings, Mono, Plumas and Solano counties have announced reductions.
In Santa Clara County, civil, small claims and traffic cases will be moved out of courthouses in Morgan Hill and Palo Alto and into the court's San Jose and Santa Clara locations in October.
In an August letter, Gilroy and Morgan Hill mayors Don Gage and Steve Tate opposed the Santa Clara County consolidations.
"Today, challenging a ticket or wanting to pursue legal action can be accomplished by appearing in a court located [in Morgan Hill or Palo Alto], without a one-way, forty five to sixty minute travel burden by car," read the letter to Presiding Judge Brian C. Walsh. "South County has a disproportionately higher percentage of residents living below the poverty line, which makes access for residents all the more important."
Walsh said in a phone interview last week that he didn't want to move his court's caseload, but doing so allowed him to eliminate 22 positions and save money.
"We're more efficient, but it's not fair," Walsh said.
Since 2013, Los Angeles County has shuttered eight courthouses and severely pared back services at two others.
San Bernardino County has closed six courthouses and clipped services at one other since 2006.
"It's catastrophic," said Robert D. Conaway, a Victorville-based sole practitioner in criminal and civil law.
Conaway practiced in Barstow until last year, when a San Bernardino County courthouse there reduced its calendars to three days a week. He said the reductions created an "economic depression" in Barstow, estimating a dozen stores offering food, office supplies and copy services closed because lawyers stopped coming there.