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In Fresno County, justice is squeezed as rural courthouses close

The closing this summer of Fresno County's seven rural outposts of justice will result in longer waits for a wide range of services. Layoffs will add to the state's unemployment rolls.

July 23, 2012|By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

COALINGA, Calif. — Downtown is quiet in the baking summer heat, but this rural hamlet's only courthouse is humming with activity. A judge is calling the morning calendar, and the pace is brisk.

Chained prison inmates in red and white jumpsuits fidget while awaiting their hearings. California Highway Patrol officers called to testify in traffic cases linger in the back. Prison guards stifle yawns and eye their charges. The small, modest courtroom is nearly full, noisy with the patter of the judge and lawyers dispatching cases amid the constant buzz of a metal detector at the door.

Within days, this scene of small-town justice will vanish. Along with six other rural courthouses in Fresno County, the Coalinga branch of Fresno County Superior Court will close, a victim of California's budget crisis. The closures, which will force residents, police, prison guards and CHP officers to drive long distances on two-lane county roads, are part of a statewide belt tightening.

The Judicial Branch is being forced to cut $544 million in 2012-13 after four consecutive years of budget slashing. Courts are trimming hours, closing courtrooms, raising fees and laying off employees. Plans to replace 38 decrepit courthouses have been mothballed. Self-help services for the poor have been trimmed, and mediation and settlement programs have been suspended.

The result will be longer waits to file cases, pay fines, get information from court clerks, resolve divorce, custody, small claims and other civil matters, and obtain restraining orders. The layoffs also will add to the state's unemployment rolls.

Although many counties are closing some courthouses, including San Diego, San Bernardino, Ventura, Tulare and Kings, the shuttering this summer of Fresno County's seven rural outposts of justice may be the most dramatic fallout so far from the statewide squeeze on courts.

In addition to Coalinga, courthouses in Reedley, Sanger, Firebaugh and Selma will close July 30. Courts in Clovis and Kingsburg will shut Aug. 6. All legal matters will be shifted to downtown Fresno, a destination of varying distances from the small, mostly working-class communities the courts have long served. The move will save the Fresno County court system about $500,000 annually but add to the costs of small police departments, the prisons and the Highway Patrol because of the extra time, mileage and fuel consumption. The buildings will either be sold or subleased.

Fresno County Superior Court Presiding Judge Gary Hoff, who had to pare about 18% from the system's operating budget, lamented that he had few other options.

"It is sad because it will certainly delay justice for many, and it will deny justice for some," said Hoff, adding that he is "taking a beating" from the communities' mayors and police chiefs. "We brought some economy to those communities," and the courts' presence "was good for the citizens and good for the administration of justice."

Coalinga, home to a state hospital and state prison, got its name from its days as a coal mining town. It is now dominated by agriculture, oil and cattle. Most of its residents are Latino.

Even without the San Joaquin Valley's traffic or blinding fog, the commute to downtown Fresno takes nearly an hour and a half. Fresno court officials are bracing for a rise in the number of people who fail to appear, either because they could not get transportation or were confused about where to go.

Besides small claims and criminal matters involving the local populace, Coalinga's court has the added burden of cases generated by the hospital, prison and traffic citations on nearby Interstate 5. Its single courtroom has vinyl floors, fluorescent box lighting and a bench carved with scrolls and the words Jure Humano, a Latin phrase that means "by human law."

Richard Esquivel, a criminal defense lawyer who represents the indigent in rural communities, said he feared that bench warrants would be issued against many defendants because they could not get to Fresno.

Fresno Deputy Dist. Atty. Chris Irwin, who prosecutes prison cases, fretted about the effect on crime victims. "For a lot of people, it is going to mean taking a whole day off work," he said.

Small police departments are especially concerned about having to lose officers for several hours a day to testify in court cases in Fresno.

In Reedley, about 22 miles from Fresno, Police Chief Joe Garza said his officers are accustomed to walking next door to testify but will now have to spend several hours away from the community "and stand in line with everybody else."

Although closer to Fresno than Coalinga, Reedley also is grieving the loss of its courthouse, a one-story brick building with skinny white columns across from a park. The town, which calls itself "the fruit basket of the world," is close-knit, with an old opera house, water towers and a quilting center.

Jose Rendon, 41, a registered nurse who once picked crops in the valley, said the closure will hurt those who don't have cars, including many elderly residents and farmworkers. "There are some people who just can't get up to Fresno," he said.

Another resident, Anthony Jewell, 71, a retired college professor, said the town's lower-income residents will be hardest hit. "How is justice served if justice is denied to people who can't afford it?" he asked while shopping with his wife in Reedley's tiny, quaint downtown.

For many residents, the loss is as much symbolic as practical.

"We're used to having our own little courthouse," said Angie Friend, 64, who has owned Reedley's Main Street Cafe for 20 years. "It is part of the community."

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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