What Happened To The Willits Courthouse?

by James Luther, September 7, 2016

“The County has a tradition of bringing the judge to the people.”

Facilities Master Plan prepared September 26, 2002 by the California Judicial Council for the Mendocino County Superior Court.

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Until fairly recently, there were three courts in Northern Inland Mendocino County. They were a small court in Covelo (population 1,255), a more active court alternating its sessions between Leggett (pop. 122) and Laytonville (pop. 1,227), and a much busier hub court in Willits (pop. 8,123 including Brooktrails).

These courts were three of the hundreds of similar outlying courts that used to hold sessions throughout rural California. Officially designated “inferior courts” but popularly known as “the people’s courts,” they heard what are now called “limited jurisdiction cases.”

Limited jurisdiction cases are the kinds of cases that people who have to go to court are usually involved in: Small claims cases, civil suits for limited amounts, traffic tickets, animal control and fish and game citations, local ordinance violations, and other charges of infractions and misdemeanors punishable by a fine and sometimes by a county jail sentence.

These cases constitute more than 85% of all the cases filed in California each year. (The annual average number of limited jurisdiction cases filed over the last 10 years reported was 87.8% of the average total case filings. See the Judicial Council 2015 Court Statistics Report, Statewide Caseload Trends 2004-2005 Through 2013-2014.) Except where jail time is possible, the people in these cases usually represent themselves. To obtain or defend against a ruling that is important to them, they usually have to show up in court.

Today, there are no courts in Northern Inland Mendocino County. The Leggett-Laytonville court was closed in late 2003. In 2009, the Willits court was closed. Last year, the Covelo court was closed.

All the limited jurisdiction cases that arise in the North County are now heard by the superior court in Ukiah. Anyone who lives in the North County who needs to go to court in any limited jurisdiction matter now has to go down to the County courthouse in Ukiah and deal with it there. From Willits, that’s a round-trip of one hour; from Leggett, it’s two hours 40 minutes; from Laytonville, it’s one hour 52 minutes; from Covelo, it’s three hours.

(Round trips to Ukiah from smaller communities in the North County take three hours 24 minutes (Bell Springs), two hours 30 minutes (Cummings), two hours 18 minutes (Dos Rios), one hour 58 minutes (Irmulco), one hour 30 minutes (Longvale), three hours 6 minutes (Piercy), 54 minutes (Ridgewood Park), two hours 54 minutes (Branscomb), and three hours 54 minutes (Spyrock). All driving times are per Google Maps.)

Limited jurisdiction cases are local; they almost always arise where the parties and witnesses involved in them live or work. In 2010, 18,248 people — more than one fifth of the 87,842 people living in Mendocino County — lived in the County’s Third Supervisorial District, the District that makes up almost all of Northern Inland Mendocino County.

Exactly 19,301 limited jurisdiction cases were filed in Mendocino County in Fiscal Year 2013-2014. (225 were small claims, 798 were limited civil actions, 2,199 were traffic misdemeanors, 2,151 were non-traffic misdemeanors, 13,041 were traffic infractions, and 887 were non-traffic infractions.) Presumably around a fifth of them — 3,860 cases, consisting of 45 small claims, 160 civil actions, 440 traffic misdemeanors, 430 non-traffic misdemeanors, 2,608 traffic infractions, and 177 non-traffic infractions — arose in the Third District.

The California Judicial Council reckons that this particular mix of 3,860 limited jurisdiction filings requires one-fourth the engaged time of a full-time judge to adjudicate plus the attentive time of three full-time clerical staff to handle and process to completion.

There are approximately 54 full-time court clerical and other court support staff and exactly seven full-time judges and a part-time commissioner now working in Ukiah. (An eighth judge serves in Fort Bragg full-time except three days each year when he travels to Point Arena to hold court there.) The judges have the power to reassign three of their clerical staff from Ukiah to suitable rented hall-and-office space full-time in Willits and to assign one of themselves to hold court there for a day and a half each week. If they did that, then almost none of the people involved in the several thousands of limited jurisdiction cases that arise in the North County each year would have to travel any farther than into downtown Willits to resolve them.

The exceptions would be in-custody defendants and parties and witnesses in jury trials. Until released on bail or on their own recognizance, in-custody defendants in North County misdemeanor cases would still have to be transported to the courthouse in Ukiah for their court appearances. (The overwhelming majority of misdemeanor defendants are out-of-custody.) A jury panel’s need for additional courtroom space probably would require that jury trials in limited jurisdiction cases arising in the North County continue to be conducted at the Ukiah courthouse. (Jury trials in limited jurisdiction cases are rare; in FY 2013-2014, only 17 were held in the entire county.)

When the courthouse is too far away, attendance is discouraged and compliance with court summons and court process is frustrated. Foreseeably, people already challenged by long distances and short on time and money will give up and default rather than exert the effort to participate in distant and unfamiliar court proceedings. So their disputes are unsatisfactorily resolved. Or worse, they remain unresolved and fester, leading to failure-to-appear charges, arrest warrants, drivers license suspensions, holds on vehicle re-registrations, added fees and penalty assessments, and more scarce money and time exhausted and more valuable effort expended by the defendants and everyone involved including the judges, court staff, and law enforcement staff and officers who then have to sift through these unnecessary layers of extra trouble to try to straighten it all out.

The mission of the courts is to fairly and effectively resolve cases, simply, understandably, authoritatively and peacefully. To do that, the courts must be kept close to the people.

So why isn’t there a court in Willits?

(Jim Luther is a Retired Judge: Ukiah Justice Court 1977-1984; Mendocino County Superior Court 1985-1996.)

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