Santa Clara Co. sheriff proposes closing courts

Citing overworked staff, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith has written a memo saying that she will pull her deputies from their security assignments at courthouses in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill by the middle of June, telling Superior Court officials to close the facilities until they get more help.

The memo — which reportedly went out last Friday before the Memorial Day weekend — was met with stiff objection from the court. In a response letter to Smith dated Wednesday, Presiding Judge Theodore Zayner wrote that the decision by Smith to stop staffing the North and South County courthouses was “surprising” and “on short notice.”

Zayner flatly rejected the idea of closing the courthouses, which resumed full operation this year after spending much of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered.

“We have no current intent to close any courthouses or courtrooms,” Zayner’s letter states.

Smith’s memo, which was obtained by the Bay Area News Group and addressed to Zayner and Court Executive Officer Rebecca Fleming, contends Smith and her office warned the court and County Executive Jeff Smith in April that they did not have enough deputies to staff the Palo Alto courthouse. She wrote that she had previously suggested delaying the court’s re-opening to December.

To fulfill its court security obligations, Smith wrote, her office made such service an mandatory overtime assignment. She detailed ongoing struggles to replace deputies who are retiring or leaving for other police agencies. She blamed a hiring freeze and a high cost of living, issues that she has raised multiple times over the years while sparring with the county over her agency’s staffing troubles and reliance on overtime pay.

That has all led, Smith wrote, to her assessment that court security is not able “to safely and effectively staff all of the open court facilities simultaneously,” and that her office “will no longer be able to staff the Palo Alto and South County Court facilities effective, June 13, 2022.” Her memo makes references to exploring “alternative solutions and staffing models, including the use of private security” and reassigning court deputies, but acknowledges that “none of these solutions can be enacted quickly.”

“I am optimistic that this is a temporary, but not necessarily a short-term problem,” she wrote. “I believe if we work together to develop solutions, we can navigate this difficult time.”

In the court’s response letter Wednesday, Judge Zayner asserted a lack of notice for Smith’s intent to pull her deputies from the two courthouses, noting that it was dated Friday “and transmitted over the long holiday weekend.”

“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.

After stating that the court will not close any courtrooms, Zayner’s letter states that the court plans to work with Smith’s office and other court-adjacent entities “to craft a solution that maintains access to justice throughout the County.”

The potential loss of access to the Palo Alto and Morgan Hill courthouses — and consolidation of criminal court cases and operations at the Hall of Justice in San Jose — would be a blow to residents living in the outer reaches of the county, with a trip from Gilroy being at least 30 miles and a trip from Palo Alto reaching as long as 20 miles. The courts are still recovering from a case backlog because of the shuttering of the outlying courthouses during the pandemic.

Public Defender Molly O’Neal said the prospect of closures would cause significant confusion that would result in missed court dates, delayed cases and in some cases, the issuing of unnecessary bench warrants. She also cited rising COVID-19 case numbers as a primary reason not to pack the San Jose courthouse.

“Shuttering the courthouses again is an outrageous proposal from the sheriff,” O’Neal said. “Those required to be in court — victims, jurors, witnesses and those with pending matters — deserve to be in their local courthouses. Folding in a 25- to 30-mile trip to get to court is patently unfair and adds another level of difficulty to an already taxed criminal-legal process.”

Others contend that vital public resources housed at those courthouses would also be disrupted. The Kurt Kumli Resource Center, currently located in the basement of the Palo Alto court, has for over a decade provided services to people transitioning out of the criminal-justice system with the aim of reducing recidivism.

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