The Palo Alto courthouse has been closed since March 2020 due to the pandemic, and in that time, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian has witnessed firsthand how frustrated the public is with the situation. Sitting in his office in the courthouse, at 270 Grant Ave., Simitian can sometimes hear rapping on the locked glass doors. When he goes to answer, he finds people who are confused about where they are supposed to appear for court hearings or how they can access services.
When he received a call from a person who couldn't reach anyone at the courthouse regarding jury duty, Simitian took the phone number the person had been supplied and tried to call himself.
"The phone rang for 45 minutes without an answer," he said.
These courthouse closures that have locked the public out of not just the Palo Alto facility but also the Morgan Hill courthouse for the past year and a half have spurred the county Board of Supervisors to urge the state to provide more funding.
On Tuesday, the board voted to direct the county's lobbyists to focus on getting additional money from the state for the Santa Clara County Superior Court. The unanimous vote came after a discussion with top members of the court, who said that their staffs have been stretched thin for more than a decade and must continually seek creative ways to keep services running.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further thinned resources. Attempts by the court to make its services accessible have met with mixed results. Those who have tried listening to court proceedings through one of the public-access teleconferencing lines during the pandemic have often been met with a tinny sound and distant voices, which has made it nearly impossible to follow what's happening.
Simitian, who was joined in his referral of the matter to the board by board President Mike Wasserman, said he has three sets of concerns related to the current closures and reduced services: their impact of the work of the court; the practical challenge of navigating the system for the county's 2 million residents; and the continued loss of public confidence in democratic institutions. The erosion in trust includes the court when it is perceived as being remote, nonresponsive and inaccessible, he said.
"That can only lead to the sense of alienation and loss of trust that people have in their democratic institutions. … That, to me, is something we should all be concerned about," he said.
The Superior Court is run by the state, not the county. Judge Beth McGowen, assistant presiding judge for the court in Santa Clara County, noted during the board meeting that budget cuts to the court system have reduced staffing by more than 20%; there are now 100 fewer employees.
As a result, the court has a significant backlog of criminal and civil cases and had to move cases normally heard in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill to San Jose. (The Morgan Hill courthouse reopened in August for trials.)
The court has focused on what it calls "consolidation" to keep all services functioning. It has kept the Family Court Self Help Center open and has kept the clerk's office in San Jose open for the public to access records. The court is also preparing to reopen or initiate other services, such as offering same-day mediation now that the housing-eviction moratorium has ended, and to resume operations for the traffic division, she said.
But the Palo Alto courthouse is likely to remain closed until at least spring 2022, and the courts are also not likely to get "back to normal" for some time, McGowen said.
What that looks like could be different than before, as the courts leave in place some of the online services that seem to have worked during the pandemic.
Rebecca Fleming, the court's chief executive officer, said shrinking budget allocations from the state aren't anything new, but the court has seen significant budget cuts from the state since at least 2009.
Simitian noted that the north county used to have a Sunnyvale courthouse, which closed, and the court moved the small claims and traffic courts from Palo Alto to Santa Clara and San Jose.
The continued courthouse closure puts a special burden on residents who are most in need but who might not have easy access to transportation to San Jose due to disabilities or financial hardship, he noted.