Courthouse Corner

(Editor’s Note: Courthouse Corner is a monthly column prepared by Napa County court officials. February’s column is written by Richard Feldstein, executive officer of the Napa Superior Court.)

As we start the new year, the Napa Superior Court is faced with three of the most significant challenges a court can deal with while continuing to provide necessary justice services in Napa County. Rocked by last summer’s South Napa Earthquake, adjustment to five straight years of state budget reductions, and the requirement to migrate to a new case management computer system within 18 months, the court’s judicial and administrative leadership are seeking all possible means of continuing a long tradition of effective public service to our local community.

Like many other downtown governmental agencies and businesses, the court is still recovering from the earthquake. Virtually all the court’s civil and family law staff continues to share sparse office space on the first floor of the Criminal Courts Building. Document filing and case inquiries will continue to be processed there for the next few months. It’s a new adventure every week for local attorneys and litigants as we work to fit all calendars and trials into fewer courtroom facilities.

Significant progress, however, is being made. Due to a great deal of creativity and cooperation by both the facility staff of Napa County and the State Judicial Council, the court has been able to reoccupy the 1916 Hall of Records and 1977 infill portion of the Historic Courthouse. This has allowed the court to reconvene jury assembly and family court services utilizing the building’s Coombs Street entrance.

In addition, the court has erected a temporary courtroom in the jury assembly room using a judge’s bench, witness stand, and attorney table on loan from another Bay Area court. Courtroom C on the second floor of the 1977 infill is also now operational. There are plans to reconfigure the 1977 infill area and relocate full civil and family clerk’s office services back to the first floor of the Historic Courthouse by the end of March. Afterward, the court operations will continue in this manner while the 1887 historic portions of the courthouse are repaired and restored over the next two to three years.

A second and ongoing challenge has been state funding reductions mostly stemming from the downturn in the California’s economy in 2009. Year after year of budget reductions since that time have resulted in a loss of $3 million, which equates to 25 percent less funding. While the court had 92 employees in 2008, it is now attempting to provide the same level of justice services with only 67 employees, a 27 percent reduction. The unfortunate outcome of our funding challenge is early closure of clerk’s office services at 4 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and a complete closure of court operations each Friday at 2:30 p.m. and three other days of the year. These reductions in operations hours are the equivalent of losing one month of justice services each year, something that is not sustainable in the long term.

The court’s third major challenge also holds great promise. This past summer, the court embarked on a major project to acquire, configure and implement a new comprehensive case management computer system. This effort requires tremendous time and resources dedicated to reviewing and re-engineering virtually all aspects of court operations both in the clerk’s office and the courtroom. Our local community, however, will greatly benefit from new technologies that not only increase efficiency, but also expand access to court services. Here are just a few important examples:

— Attorneys and members of the public will be able to view their case information online through an Internet portal.

— Self-represented litigants will be able to access guides on the Internet that walk them through a series of questions. The answers to those questions will lead to and explain the appropriate court procedures and automatically populate the necessary court paperwork.

— Attorneys and litigants will be able to file and receive official court documents and pay the necessary fees from their home or office computers.

— The criminal and juvenile portions of the system will be fully integrated with those of other local and statewide justice partners, allowing a seamless and immediate exchange of case information.

Although these organizational challenges are formidable, the dedication of the court’s staff, the leadership of our judicial officers, and support of our strategic partners at the state and county levels will provide the most indispensable resources to overcome them and lead to an even better court system for the citizens of Napa County. We look forward to meeting these challenges with energy and optimism and reporting our progress over the upcoming months and years.

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