BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
It looks like Palo Alto is going to lose its courthouse. That’s not the final decision, but the place suffering the death of a 1,000 cuts.
Over the past few years, the courthouse’s judges and judicial functions have been moved, one by one, to court buildings in San Jose.
We lost civil trials, small claims court, traffic court, criminal court and court records to the courthouses in San Jose.
Then Covid struck, and the hollowed-out Palo Alto Courthouse was closed “temporarily.”
County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he was told by court officials last year that the courthouse would reopen when the pandemic ends.
But last week, as the Post reported, court officials said the courthouse will be closed “indefinitely.”
The courts aren’t controlled by the county Board of Supervisors, which includes Simitian. Instead, they’re run by the county’s presiding judge, Theodore Zayner, and the state Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the courts, headed by state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
State budget cuts
I don’t blame either Zayner or Cantil-Sakauye for this. They are simply working with the budget they get from the governor and Legislature.
Jerry Brown seemed to have a fetish for cutting funding to the courts. Under Gov. Gavin Newsom, the budget for the state judicial branch, which includes the courthouses, went from $4.12 billion in the 2019-20 fiscal year to $3.95 billion in 20-21, a 4.1% cut. The new budget for the year starting July 1 brings the budget back to $4.13 billion. Essentially this year’s increase restores last year’s cuts but doesn’t add much more.
And that money has to be spread over 58 counties with approximately 500 court buildings.
It’s absurd that the state with a $75 billion surplus can’t allocate more money for the courts.
For many Palo Alto residents, closing the courthouse means a trip to San Jose to deal with a speeding ticket or an eviction lawsuit.
Before Judge Zayner and the other court officials decide to shut down the courthouse, I hope they hold a hearing to find out what people think, and then make a decision.
Better online access needed
Maybe Palo Alto doesn’t need a courthouse anymore since a growing amount of legal business is being done online. The county courts are accepting documents online, and access to files is improving, though it is still way behind the federal courts.
The Palo Alto courthouse shouldn’t close until the Superior Court improves its online access.
For instance, you can find a Superior Court criminal case online but you can only see basic information such as hearing dates and the names of lawyers. But the charging documents, motions and other key filings aren’t available in the county system like they are in the federal PACER system.
If you want to know what’s happening in a criminal case, you have to go to the Hall of Justice on W. Hedding Street in San Jose and request the paper file. At one time, you could look up the file of a local case at the counter of the Palo Alto courthouse, but that was moved to San Jose.
It’s odd that the local court that serves Silicon Valley isn’t as technologically up-to-date as the federal system.
If the courthouse has to close, Judge Zayner should consider having some outpost of the legal system in Palo Alto, such as a branch of the traffic court or a counter for filing legal papers.
It’s too bad that city officials didn’t anticipate the courthouse’s closing when planning the new police station next door. Some of the court’s functions could have been put in that building.
An aging building
One argument for closing the courthouse is that the building, which dates back to the 60s, is in bad shape. Parts of it, like the jail, haven’t been used in decades and are blocked off. It’s an inefficient use of space in a city where space is at a premium.
If the courthouse has to close, the full block it occupies would be an excellent location for new housing. Supervisor Simitian is leading the charge to build teacher housing next to the courthouse at 231 Grant Ave., which is now a parking lot.
I think the public, while disappointed the city is losing its courthouse, would welcome more housing. When city council held hearings on the police station for 250 Sherman Ave. and the parking structure at 350 Sherman, members of the public argued that housing in those locations would be a better choice.
I want to keep the courts here so the public has better access to the legal system. But if I’m wrong about that, housing is a good alternative.
Judge Zayner has a big decision to make about whether to close the courthouse. I encourage him to ask the community what they want before making a final decision.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.