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Thursday, Mar 28 2013 11:00 PM

Decimated courts must get innovative

By The Bakersfield Californian

Heavy cuts to the Kern County courts system scheduled for implementation this year will require the development of innovative, technologically driven alternatives to long-established methods of doing business. It's the only way we can keep this most critical function of government running at a reasonable level of efficiency.

The cuts to local courts, which face a $3.7 million deficit this budget year, will be a long-term, if not permanent, reality. But budgetary fluctuations should not and must not significantly affect access to courts.

Those rights associated with trial proceedings -- the right to a speedy trial, the right to a public trial and the right to be judged by a jury of one's peers -- are chisled into the Sixth Amendment. Budget cuts can't impede on that. Yet, here we are.

We also depend on the courts for noncriminal proceedings such as the resolution of simple disputes through small claims, more complicated civil trials, and of course, family law issues.

Kern is not alone in seeing its wheels of justice collide with the budget ax. San Francisco's court system has reduced staff 31 percent over the past few years and closed 11 of its 63 civil courtrooms. Last month, San Mateo County announced the closure of most of its South San Francisco and San Mateo courts. Layoffs there include four court commissioners.

Courts will have to get creative, and some already have. Los Angeles County Superior Court, faced with an even bigger shortfall, will create specialized hubs where certain cases will be processed, such as personal injury, limited civil, small claims, collections and unlawful detainer matters. All general civil personal injury and some civil actions, for example, must be filed at a single specified courthouse.

The Los Angeles court has also developed a system whereby ZIP code locations dictate where people must file small claims, limited collections or limited unlawful detainer cases.

Kern County officials will have to look at those and similar models to keep the already-overburdened court system moving, if even at its current snail's pace. Citizens will have to understand those changes and adjust. Perhaps they'll have to file paperwork online where before they could walk up to a counter and interact with a living, breathing clerk, or travel to a more distant courthouse because of the closure or reduced hours of the closest one.

What other steps might Kern County Superior Court officials take to deal with the issue? Automation is one. A more expanded use of private, binding arbitration for some cases is another. Can some court business be taken care of via email, online chat or electronic form? That may not sound especially appealing, but in many cases it will be more convenient than finding a human clerk, given the declining hours of availability.

Other options, some suggested more than a year ago by then-Los Angeles County Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon, include simplifying criminal and civil procedures -- something that's long overdue regardless of budgetary necessity -- and allowing cities to use court-appointed traffic commissioners to hear minor cases such as disputed traffic violations.

No amount of consolidation and fat-trimming will make up for the losses these cuts will inflict, but creativity and innovation can compensate for a lot.

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