Citing staffing shortages, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith plans to shut down the Palo Alto and Morgan Hill courthouses later this month.
The proposal, which Smith unveiled in a May 27 memo, calls for shutting down the two courthouses on June 13. The closure is necessary, she wrote, because of her office's "inability to adequately staff court security."
"Having to staff eight court facilities, with the corresponding metal detector functions, is not the most effective use of limited resources," Smith wrote.
Smith, whose is concluding her term in January after numerous high-profile scandals and an accusation of corrupt misconduct by the Santa Clara County Grand Jury, stated in the memo that the court's security division "finds itself in the very unfortunate position of not being able to safely and effectively staff all of the open court facilities simultaneously."
"Regrettably, the Sheriff's Office will no longer be able to staff the Palo Alto and South County Court facilities effective June 13, 2022," the memo states. "We will consolidate all resources from Palo Alto and South County to the remaining facilities to be able to provide safe and effective security services.
"We do not take this matter lightly and will continue to explore other models to provide the service that the Courts expect and should receive."
The announcement, which was made just before Memorial Day weekend, came as a shock to Santa Clara County Superior Court officials. Presiding Judge Theodore Zayner responded with a memo Wednesday that pushed back against Smith's plan to shut down the courthouses, which had been closed for much of the pandemic. The Palo Alto Courthouse at 270 Grant Ave. reopened on May 2. Prior to that date, all court business involving north county residents was conducted at the Hall of Justice in San Jose.
"It is disappointing and surprising to hear on such short notice of your apparent determination to discontinue deputy staffing for the Palo Alto and Morgan Hill courthouses, when the court has not increased the number of operating courtrooms while we attempt to serve the North County and South County communities," Zayner wrote in a June 1 memo.
"We have no current intent to close any courthouses or courtrooms, and we look forward to working with your office, the office of the County Executive, and our justice partners to craft a solution that maintains access to justice throughout the County and across all our court facilities."
Smith stated in the memo that since October 2021 her office has been requiring all staff to work overtime to provided the staffing that is required to meet all of its mandated functions. This burden, she wrote, "has fallen on other understaffed divisions to achieve a minimum of 25-30 deputies per day for Court Security alone."
"This ongoing overtime mandate, in addition to other factors, has been very difficult on our staff," Smith wrote.
She noted that it takes about 18 months to recruit, hire and a train a person for the deputy sheriff position and pointed to numerous other factors for the staffing shortage, including decisions by Santa Clara County officials to institute a hiring freeze and then eliminate vacant positions in her office.
"The effects of this hiring freeze coupled with early retirements have led us to this critical juncture," she wrote.
She also noted that her office is losing deputies to other agencies that either offer higher salaries or are located in areas with a lower cost of living. This year, she wrote, the Sheriff's Office has lost seven deputies to other agencies and eight others are in the hiring process with other agencies.
"Employees are leaving at an alarming rate which has had a significant impact on staffing throughout the agency," she wrote. "Our ability to provide even minimum levels of service, has become a safety issue for our staff and those we serve."
According to the Sheriff's Office, the low staffing levels are requiring 145 overtime shifts in courts every week. Closing the two courthouses would "substantially increase the number of courtrooms that can be utilized by integrating staff to key locations," the office stated in a statement.
"The mission of the Sheriff's Office is to provide safety and security for Court staff, the incarcerated, and those doing business in the Courts," the statement reads. "The consolidating of deputies to core areas will allow us to move deputies from outlying courthouses to staff additional courtrooms at the Hall of Justice."
But opponents of the plan suggested that the proposal to close the courthouses is a consequence of poor planning and misguided thinking.
Supervising Public Defender Gary Goodman called the proposal to shut down the courthouses a "horrible plan" that will have a significant and negative impact on members of the public, particularly older people who may have trouble getting to San Jose. The fact that Smith dropped the plan on a Friday night before a long weekend and just two weeks before the closure date makes the situation even worse, he said.
Since the Palo Alto Courthouse reopened on May 2, its two operational departments have been teeming with activity, Goodman said. He estimated that the court has processed between 200 and 300 matters in the first week alone.
In addition to serving as a place to resolve cases, the courthouse also includes the Kurt Kumli Resource Center, which offers services for people in the criminal justice system, and the Probation Department, which Goodman said is one of the courthouse's most important services. Goodman, who helped found the Kurt Kumli Resource Center, said that if Smith's plan proceeds and the building closes, all these services will come to an end.
Just on Thursday, Goodman said, an older man visited the Palo Alto Courthouse to voice his concern about possibly being a victim of a crime. He stated that the only reason he did so was because the building was open. He made it clear that he would not have been able to make it to San Jose, Goodman said.
"By shutting this building down with no notice, it hurts not only my clients, which clearly she doesn't care about, it hurts the public," Goodman said. "It hurts the police departments, the victims and the underserved population.
"With us being closed down, having to move into the courthouse and then shutting down, especially with no notice, it's just unconscionable. We can't shut it down again."