The plan to close seven satellite Fresno County courthouses this summer and consolidate services in downtown Fresno has unleashed criticism that the move will make rural cities unsafe and deny justice to the poor.
Gary Hoff, who made the move to shut down the rural courthouses as presiding judge of Fresno County Superior Court, said his hands are tied by a state budget that doesn't allow for as wide a net of public services as it once did.
"We cannot operate those branch courts anymore," he said. "They're not cost-effective."
Courts in Coalinga, Firebaugh, Reedley, Sanger and Selma are closing on July 30, and the Clovis and Kingsburg courts are closing on Aug. 6.
The drastic cuts mean that all court matters -- traffic, civil, family law, probate and criminal -- will be handled at three downtown Fresno courthouses, which already have heavy workloads.
Last week, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors protested in a letter to Hoff, and board President Debbie Poochigian led a grilling of the judge during Thursday's Council of Governments meeting.
"This is so contrary to access to justice that everyone talks about," Poochigian said Thursday.
Poochigian and others wanted to know why the satellite courts couldn't at least be open part time. Rural residents -- who have long depended on satellite courthouses to pay traffic tickets, file civil and probate cases and participate in criminal matters -- will have to travel long distances to a Fresno courtroom.
Selma Mayor Ken Grey said the court closures also will force police to leave their cities while officers testify in a Fresno courtroom. "It will force us to choose what types of crimes to get involved in," Grey said.
Poochigian then pressed the judge, asking him why the cities weren't consulted before the decision was made. Hoff countered, saying the Board of Supervisors doesn't consult the courts when supervisors consider the budgets of the sheriff, probation, prosecutors and public defenders.
"But the Board of Supervisors makes decisions in public," Poochigian said. "You did it behind closed doors."
Afterward, Hoff said the criticism didn't change his mind about closing the branch courts.
On Hoff's side is Fresno County Supervisor Henry Perea, who said he doesn't agree with the board's decision to criticize Hoff.
"Judge Hoff had no choice," Perea said, "because the state budget didn't give him the money to keep the satellite courts open."
Gov. Jerry Brown is asking voters in November to decide whether they want to pay more taxes to support more services, and Perea said that amounts to a referendum on many things, including courts. "Let the voters decide what services they are willing to pay for," Perea said.
Under the governor's latest spending plan, the Fresno court system faces a potential $5.4 million deficit, Hoff said.
The courthouse closures will save about $2 million, said Tamara Beard, executive officer of Fresno County Superior Court. Judges and about 40 court employees will be reassigned to the downtown Fresno courthouses.
The cuts are happening because court expenses are paid by the state, a duty it took over in 1997 when California consolidated the county court system.
The Fresno courts aren't alone. Just last week, the Tulare County Superior Court announced it will close its Tulare courthouse on Aug. 31 and lay off 26 people due to lack of state funding. Court cases in Tulare will be divided between Visalia and Porterville.
Before making the move, Hoff tried to minimize the impact on west Fresno County residents. He said he looked into forming a partnership with Kings County Superior Court to share the Avenal courthouse. But Kings County Superior Court, like courts statewide, likely has financial difficulties too, he said.