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They Plan To Close Our Courthouse, People Are Pushing Back

MADERA COUNTY – Mountain area residents have recently learned that the Madera Superior Court plans to close the Bass Lake Courthouse as of Nov. 30. Needless to say, people are not happy and they are making their objections known.

The Eastern Madera County Bar Association has scheduled a Town Hall meeting for Tuesday, Oct. 23, at the Oakhurst Community Center at 6 p.m. and urge the public to attend.

The closure of the courthouse would mean that small claims cases, divorces, traffic tickets and jury duty will all be handled at the Madera Courthouse starting on Monday, Dec. 1.

Sierra News Online requested a copy of the report prepared by the Judicial Council of California recommending the closure, but our request was denied based upon the citing of the 2018 California Rules of Court Rule 10.500, asserting that these were “records whose disclosure would compromise the security of a judicial branch entity or the safety of judicial branch personnel…”

We also requested an interview with Bonnie Thomas, the Court Executive Officer, or Presiding Judge Joseph Soldani, who made the decision to close the courthouse in Bass Lake. We have not been contacted by either Ms. Thomas or Judge Soldani, however we did receive an email from madera.comment@madera.courts.ca.gov, the author of which was not identified, with this response:

“While we understand that this will be inconvenient for Eastern Madera residents, we have had to place safety and security as a priority over convenience. However, the downtown Madera courthouse location is a state-of-the-art facility with all court services on site. Residents attending to court business in Madera will have access to all services in one location.

“For example, if litigants are heard in a Family Law courtroom and referred for child custody mediation and assistance with document preparation, they have access to both Family Court Services and the Self-Help office without ever leaving the building. The downtown location is far more secure, accommodating, and comfortable.

“For residents who do not wish to travel to Madera, much of their court business can be handled by mail or fax. And in the upcoming year, we hope to begin offering e-Filing services for many case types, as well as a web portal allowing the public to access certain case information online.”

The Eastern Madera County Bar Association is also vehemently opposed to the closure and sent this letter to Presiding Judge Soldani today:

This letter shall serve as a formal objection to the proposed closure of the Sierra Division of the Madera County Superior Court located in Bass Lake, California, which is presented to you on behalf of the members of the Eastern Madera County Bar Association.

The drastic measure of closing the Sierra Courthouse would result in an extreme hardship to the mountain area within Eastern Madera County. The following negative consequences present reasons why the Sierra Courthouse should not be closed.

1. The Madera Courthouse is not available for those with limited or no ability to travel long distances. The earliest a Madera County Connection Transit bus can get to Madera is close to 10 a.m. Further, the bus drops off at the Greyhound station, which requires a ride from that station to the Madera Courthouse. Public transportation is simply unavailable.

2. The closure would pose a hardship for seniors and the disabled.

3. The closure would pose disproportionate time and expenses to address issues such as small claims, unlawful detainers, traffic matters, limited civil actions, harassment restraining orders, or other matters requiring only a small amount of the court’s time.

4. The protection of the court is necessary to the safety of the residents of Eastern Madera County. The closure would inhibit those most in need of protection from access to the court to prevent harm, such as victims of domestic violence.

5. The closure would unnecessarily deter residents in the mountain area from seeking the assistance of the court to either bring or defend a case.

6. Criminal defendants lacking transportation would be harmed by an increase in the amount of failure-to-appears and resulting warrants, as most criminal matters heard at the Sierra Courthouse involve defendants who are not in custody. Most of those cases involve misdemeanors and non-violent, low level felonies which usually require numerous appearances and are regularly continued several times until resolved.

7. Security issues should be resolved by either requesting allocation of state resources to address deficiencies (as has successfully been done in the recent past) or eliminating the types of cases that require higher levels of security, like in-custody cases or jury trials. Alternatively, in-custody cases can be handled through video-conferencing.

8. Pursuant to the Judicial Council Public Affairs Office, “updates to the Assigned Judges Program should not necessitate the closure of any courthouse in California.” It is the court’s responsibility to serve all the people of Madera County and not just the ones most convenient for the judges. The presiding judge has authority to assign a judge to serve the Sierra Courthouse as has been previously done.

9. The closure would require Eastern Madera County attorneys to increase fees due to the extended amount of time and travel necessary to address matters at a distant courthouse.

10. Litigants who have sequential court appearances to address the various aspects of dissolution, paternity, support, and guardianship issues require multiple court appearances to address custody issues. Frequently continuances are required because Family Court Services seeks a continuance when they are unable to meet the court deadlines for a Report and Recommendation. Family Court Services appears unconcerned when their requests require a court action to either re-refer the parties to mediation or to continue the matter because appointment times are not available. For Eastern Madera County residents, this would mean several trips to Madera (and long wait times because Madera Department 40 is impacted). Not only would these families need more time off from work, they would also incur the expense of travel, all of which poses an adverse financial impact on families.

11. The closure would add a significant number of people traveling every day on Highways 41 and 145, many of whom are not in a position to travel on a dangerous highway, thereby creating a health and safety hazard.

Based on the foregoing, it is respectfully requested that the drastic measure of closing the Sierra Courthouse be reconsidered.

Very truly yours,
Eastern Madera County Bar Association

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors whose district includes Bass Lake, notes that the Board has absolutely no say in decisions made about the operation of the Court. Nonetheless he felt that this decision would have significant negative impacts on the mountain community and sent this letter to Court CEO Bonnie Thomas on Oct. 4:

…the closure of the Bass Lake Courthouse would have numerous negative effects on the public, so much so that we would ask that the decision be reconsidered, and that alternatives to closure be explored.

First, the closure of the Bass Lake Courthouse would result in a significant amount of inconvenience for Eastern Madera County citizens. Those with active court cases, as well as those summoned for jury duty, would be required to make a long and often arduous drive to the City of Madera. From many places in Eastern Madera County, there simply is no direct route, and thus the drive could take two hours or more.

Furthermore, for those who do not own automobiles, the burden would be even greater. Also, without a local courthouse, local citizens would be much less likely to access Self Help Services, which could negatively affect the ability of these citizens to deal with their cases.

Next, the need for litigants and jurors from Eastern Madera County to travel to the Main Courthouse would add greater traffic burdens on State Routes 41 and 145, as well as many County roads. Many of these thoroughfares are already greatly impacted, especially State Route 41, and the closure of the Bass Lake Courthouse would only further decrease the safety of those using the roads.

In addition, the area of the City of Madera around the Main Courthouse would be negatively affected. Increased daily traffic from those coming from Eastern Madera County would place an additional burden on an already busy location, and it is not known whether the current parking allotment will be enough. Also, it should be noted that school children commonly travel on foot and on bicycles on West 6th Street, directly in front of the Main Courthouse. Increasing traffic in this area, especially with out-of-town drivers unfamiliar with the area, would increase the risk of harm to not just regular pedestrians, but to school children in particular. Thus, the impacts associated with closing the Bass Lake Court would not be limited to Eastern Madera County, but would affect the people of the County as a whole.

Based on the foregoing, the County respectfully requests that the Court Closure Notice for the Bass Lake Courthouse be withdrawn for the time being, and further requests that the potential impacts of closing this courthouse be studied further so that a more informed decision can be made. During this process, alternatives to closure can be explored. If there are security concerns at this facility that can be remediated, the County is willing to assist in addressing these concerns. Our staff will make itself available to you so that a reasonable solution can be reached.

Since the “security” issues to which the Court refers are not explained, it has been inferred – based upon many hundreds of hours spent in the Bass Lake Courthouse and conversations with attorneys and former court personnel – that the issue is the lack of space to hold those who are in custody and have been transported to the courthouse on the day of their appearance before the judge.

We requested more information from the Court by asking these questions in an email last Thursday. There has been no response to our email as of this posting and these questions have not been answered:

    • Why doesn’t the Court set up a portable building to house the in-custodies on the site?
    • Has there ever been a security issue involving in-custodies or court personnel in which anyone was injured or any in-custody escaped?
    • Why can’t in-custody cases be moved to Madera and leave the Bass Lake Court open for divorces, small claims, traffic, etc.?
    • There is no public transportation from Eastern Madera County that allows people to arrive in Madera by 8:30 a.m. [The first bus arrives in Madera at 9:57 a.m., and according to the Public Works Department, the Court has not requested any earlier runs to accommodate those who use public transportation.] How will the Court accommodate individuals who don’t have personal transportation to travel to Madera?
    • What about all the time lost from work and the costs incurred by individuals to travel to the Valley for their cases, including higher attorney fees for those with private counsel? Sometimes their case isn’t called until late in the day, or it is continued to a later date and they have to make multiple trips.
    • I was in court this morning where the family of a murder victim has showed up 22 times over 22 months as the case against the defendant was continued again and again. Since Dec. 2016. It was continued again today. What about the families, the witnesses and the victims and the imposition this places upon them? The cost of travel; the missed work?
    • It has been suggested that part of the issue is that no judges want to be assigned to Bass Lake. Does this have any bearing on the decision to close the courthouse?
    • It has also been pointed out that the closure of the Bass Lake Courthouse transfers the cost of serving justice from the tax-payer-supported Court, back onto the taxpayers themselves, so they pay twice.
    • How does the closure of the courthouse serve the community?

Oakhurst real estate developer John Reed has raised these points:

“Closing the Bass Lake Courthouse will cause residents and small business owners time, money, frustration and prevent the filing of many claims. It is not fair to the residents and small business to close the Courthouse.

“The financial burden on Small Claims filers will be dramatic. A typical small claims action requires several trips to the Court, from picking up documents so you can ask questions, to filing the documents in person to be sure they are filled out correctly, and then appearing, multiple times in some cases, for a single case. It will be an average two hours extra time per courthouse visit and about 100 hundred miles per trip (at a cost of $.55 per mile).

“Traffic will be increased [on Highways 41 and 145], and exposure to accidents will increase. In winter, driving conditions can be sometimes treacherous between the mountains and the valley. It will become so burdensome as to prevent the filing of some actions, especially in the lower dollar ranges. Or make it too hard to show for a hearing. It is not good business to close the courthouse.

“For example, if I am an auto mechanic and someone stiffs me for a $1,200 repair bill, it will cost me, for three trips, 6 hours at $90 per hour (what I charge for fixing cars), $540, plus $165 in vehicle cost (3 trips @ $55 per mile), for a total of $705 to try and collect a $1200 bill.  I become much less likely to pursue collection. It will cost the County in the long run the benefit of those collected debts. It will make it more expensive on the residents and business owners in Eastern Madera County. It will cause more cars to be on the road. It will cause more accidents to happen. It will make it harder to live in Eastern Madera County. It is not good government to close the Courthouse. Find a way to keep it open.”

The Court says they are “receiving public comments and that all will be reviewed and considered.”

Anyone wishing to voice their opinion on the closure of the Bass Lake Courthouse must submit comments by Monday, Nov. 19 to Madera.Comment@madera.courts.ca.gov.

The phone number for Madera Superior Court is 559-416-5599.

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