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Tue August 6, 2013
Around the Nation

With Budgets Tight, Small Towns Go Without Courthouses

Originally published on Tue August 6, 2013 6:06 am

In the small town of Coalinga, Calif., on the corner of 6th and Elm streets, the Fresno County Superior Court's old courthouse is still. Inside, veteran police Lt. Darren Blevins gestures inside an empty courtroom.

"In the past, when we actually had court in here, over on this wall here was the seating for the inmates or the people that were held in custody," he says.

But now, in the wood-paneled courtroom, a large flat-screen television hangs where the podium used to be. Due to budget cuts, Fresno County closed the courthouse last year. Now, it uses video streaming, via the television, to hold traffic court.

For small claims cases and criminal arraignments, everyone — including police officers — has to travel more than an hour to Fresno. Last year, those travel expenses cost the Coalinga Police Department around $25,000.

For Locals, The Loss Of 'An American Experience'

This town epitomizes the case of the disappearing courthouse — a trend underway around the country as courthouses restrict hours or close their doors to save money. California is in the process of shuttering an extraordinary 77 courthouses. Many courts have also instituted reduced hours at their public service counters.

Decades ago, Coalinga had a full-time judge and held jury trials. Then it began hearing fewer types of cases and eventually the full-time judge was replaced by judges who visited occasionally.

One of them was the father of longtime Coalinga resident Katie Delano. The executive director of the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce and a former high school history teacher, Delano brought her sons to see their grandfather at the courthouse.

"My boys thought Grandpa was very tough," Delano says. "It was funny. It was a great experience, and I think we lose that — looking at juries and seeing a courtroom up close. It's like they are missing out on an American experience because trial by jury, that's what we're all about.

"Not that I want to have more crime in Coalinga," she adds. "But ... to be able to solve our issues and take care of them locally would be a great thing."

'Financially, We Could Not Do Anything Else'

Gary Hoff, presiding judge of Fresno County Superior Court, says he knew closing the courts would mean some people just wouldn't go to the courts looking for justice, but that the closures were necessary.

"We knew that closing the courts would deny people in outlying jurisdictions the availability of going to a local courthouse to take care of their business," he says. "I know others have disagreed with our choice, but financially we could not do anything else but close those courts. We have to live within our budget."

And in Coalinga, a lot of people, like Sherry Devine, who owns Sweetly Devine, the go-to restaurant in town, just don't care. "We'd get clients in here. Lawyers. There used to be a lawyer that rented upstairs," Devine says. "But ...I haven't seen a huge loss with it not being here."

But often, most people don't think about courts until they need them. That goes for people in small towns like Coalinga, or Meridian, Miss., where, 46 years ago, members of the Ku Klux Klan faced trial for murdering three civil rights workers. That federal courthouse is also slated to shut down.

And while courts are embracing technology to make up for the closures, like Coalinga's video traffic court, there is no getting past the fact that as services have shrunk, so has some people's access to justice.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

All over the country, courthouses are restricting hours and closing doors to save money. In California, the state is in the process of shutting down an extraordinary 77 courthouses.

Emily Green visited one of those courthouses in a small city in Fresno County.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CHURCH BELL)

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: It's 10 A.M. on a Tuesday in this tiny town. Church bells are ringing. A stray dog is barking as veteran police Lieutenant Darrin Levins meets me at the Coalinga courthouse.

LIEUTENANT DARRIN LEVINS: We're at the corner of 6th and Elm, which is the old Fresno County courthouse, Superior Court of Coalinga. Inside the doors is where the county used to hold court for the local community.

GREEN: So this is where people used to come in.

LEVINS: Correct.

GREEN: It's cute.

LEVINS: In the past, when we actually had court in here, they actually had - over on this wall here, was the seating for the inmates or for the people that were held in custody.

GREEN: But now, in this wood paneled courtroom, where the podium used to stand, hangs a large flat screen television. Because of budget cuts, the county closed the courthouse. Now, it uses video streaming to hold traffic court. But for small claims cases and criminal arraignments, people have to go to Fresno, including police officers who have to travel more than an hour to get there. Last year, the travel expenses cost the department around $25,000.

Coalinga epitomizes the case of the disappearing courthouse, a trend occurring across the country. Decades ago, it held jury trials and had a full-time judge. Then it began to hear fewer types of cases and the full-time judge was replaced by one who visited from time to time.

Longtime Coalinga resident Katie Delano brought her sons to see one of those visiting judges, their grandfather.

KATIE DELANO: My boys thought grandpa was very tough.

(LAUGHTER)

DELANO: It was funny. It was a great experience and I think we lose that. You know, looking at juries and seeing a courtroom up close, it's like they're missing out on an American experience. Because trial by jury, that's what we're all about.

GREEN: Delano is executive director of the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce and also a former high school history teacher.

DELANO: Not that I want to have more crime in Coalinga. But the idea to be able to solve our issues and take care of them locally would be a great thing.

JUDGE GARY HOFF: We knew that closing the courts would deny people in outlying jurisdictions the availability of going to a local courthouse, to take care of their business.

GREEN: That's Gary Hoff, presiding judge of Fresno County Superior Court. He says he knew closing the courts would mean some people just wouldn't go to the courts looking for justice.

HOFF: I know others have disagreed with our choice, but financially we could not do anything else but close those courts. We have to live within our budget.

GREEN: The odd thing is, in Coalinga, a lot of people just don't care. Sherry Devine owns Sweetly Devine, the go-to restaurant in town.

SHERRY DEVINE: We'd get clients in here - lawyers. There used to be a lawyer that rented upstairs. But to me it hasn't been a huge loss. I haven't seen a huge loss with it not being here.

GREEN: But the thing is, most people don't think about courts until they need them. That goes for people in small towns like Coalinga. Or Meridian, Mississippi, where 46 years ago members, of the Ku Klux Klan faced trial for murdering three civil rights workers. That courthouse is also slated for closure. And while courts are embracing technology to make up for the closures, there's no getting past the fact that as services have shrunk, so has people's access to justice.

For NPR News, I'm Emily Green.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.