Buried in the back of your Standard California Codes (the Six-in-Two version) are the “Standards of Judicial Administration.” Tucked deep into the Standards is a provision entitled “The role of the judiciary in the community.” It tells us that “community outreach [i]s an official judicial function.”
The Contra Costa Superior Court has been proud of its work in the community. But the most recent budget cuts imperil that work. We often do not appreciate something until it is gone. So while we still can, take a moment to consider some of the many community programs the court supports.
For fifth and eighth graders we have (almost) always had our school tours.
In 2010, sixty-seven classes visited the court. In 2011, seventy-eight are scheduled. In addition, we host tours for other community groups such as Girl Scout troops. All this requires the coordinated work of the Contra Costa County Bar Association (thank you) and Court staff to schedule – and often reschedule – these visits, make the arrangements with the schools and provide the volunteers to take the classes around.
For years, both the Court and the bar have played an active role in the annual Mock Trial program in which so many high school students have participated. Judges and lawyers work with the teams, judge rounds of competition and provide feedback to the participants. The students are always impressive and it is a treat to be able to encourage them.
Richmond High School was the first in the county to have a true law academy. It offers a special curriculum for students who may have an interest in a career in law, court administration or, perhaps, law enforcement. Over the last few years, more high schools have created law academies. Now, Deer Valley, De Anza, Pinole, Kennedy and Richmond all have them. Judges and lawyers have worked with these schools in one way or another to contribute, in some small way, to their success.
DUI Trials in the Schools
Judge Austin was responsible for creating a program in which he “tries” a driving under the influence case in a high school, using the students as jurors. It brings the courts to the students in a way that drives home, as it were, an important message.
Appellate Court Sessions in the Schools
This year, the Court’s appellate division has arranged to convene a session at Deer Valley High School. The students will be given information about the cases on the appellate docket prior to the hearing. The lawyers will argue their cases before the appellate division, at the school, where the students can observe the proceedings.
Law School Moot Court
The Court also supplies judges to local law schools’ moot court programs. Teacher training. The Court has participated in teacher training sessions, especially for those working in law academies. Recently, we hosted a “boot camp” for such in-service training.
The Court’s outreach efforts are not limited to academic settings. Judge Austin has also conducted a “homeless court” in a community center to dispose of infractions that too often keep people from being able to get a driver’s license, a place to live or a job. Homeless Court can give someone a fresh start – at least to the extent the Court is able to do so.
The Court has recently begun a program with the assistance of the District Attorney, the Public Defender and certain other organizations to consider motions to expunge decades-old criminal convictions pursuant to Penal Code Section 1203.4 in appropriate cases.
Veteran’s Stand Down
In recent years, veterans’ and other community organizations have undertaken the creation of a temporary veterans’ encampment, where people who served our country, but who may be down on their luck, can come for food, shelter, healthcare, a haircut, counseling and other services. At the stand-down, our Court has conducted a form of homeless court – in a large tent, partly open to the air, sitting in folding chairs that dig into the turf. With the assistance of our justice partners and court staff, we are able to dispose of old matters that impede the veteran’s ability to get back on his or her feet.
This is only a sampling of the kind of work that the Court does. But each requires staff make the event work. In some cases it is a matter of scheduling large volumes of tours. In other cases, it is an issue of pulling old files, going over them with our justice partners and determining which are appropriate for disposition. In still other cases, it is a matter of generating calendars, arranging temporary courtrooms, having clerical staff in some unusual venue and making a careful record of what has transpired.
Virtually all of this is now imperiled. Other articles in this magazine describe the kinds of cuts we have had to make over the last three years. We have lost about 30% of our staff. We have to make still further reductions to meet our new budget allotment.
To whatever extent we can continue to maintain these programs, we will. And to the extent we can use volunteers to help us maintain them, we will. But as we make some very difficult decisions in the months ahead, we are deeply concerned about our ability to deliver fully on the principle that “community outreach is a judicial function.”
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