By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer– Last Friday, the city’s manager, Ron Strand, and a trio of legal representatives from the Paul Hastings Law Firm appeared before the California Judicial Council of California in San Francisco. Strand and the three attorneys were given a small amount of time during the “comments section” to inform the over 20 justices about the flawed process that created Ridgecrest’s current courthouse situation and to plea for the council to put the city’s courthouse back on the “immediate needs” list.
The attorneys had a total of five minutes to cover three topics: the background, the practical problems, and their proposed legal theory. After the attorneys spoke, Strand used his three minutes to give his pitch from the standpoint of someone who had given 38 years of service to this community in roles that made him very familiar with Ridgecrest’s courts.
First to speak was associate Ellen Heiman, who gave background information about the importance of Ridgecrest’s courtrooms and how the current situation evolved. She said, “The Ridgecrest courthouse currently provides 54,000 people in rural East Kern county with vital court services in one functioning courtroom.” Unfortunately, it has been in dire need of improvement since 2014, and the advisory committee has known about it. However, the funding set aside for those needed improvements was “quietly taken off the ‘immediate needs’ list by the request of the Kern County Superior Court last year,” and in place of a new courtroom for Ridgecrest, a new courtroom was planned to be built near Tehachapi, consolidating both the Ridgecrest and Mojave courts. The city leaders and law community in Ridgecrest did not learn of this until 15 months after the consolidation request was made. But, when word got out, “public disagreement was quick and unanimous.” Heiman credited the Kern County Superior Court for recognizing their flawed process, and they attempted to correct it by “soliciting public feedback on the plan.” So during the first week of June, Superior Court’s Presiding Judge, J. Eric Bradshaw, held an informational meeting in Ridgecrest, Mojave, and Bakersfield. He asked anyone who wanted to speak also to submit a letter. When that feedback was given in a special informational meeting on June 3, the Ridgecrest community made it clear that forcing the Ridgecrest citizens (and outlying areas served) to drive an hour and a half each way “does not strike the correct balance between efficiency and access to justice.” The week after the informational meetings, Bradshaw’s recommendation to the advisory committee was to keep both Ridgecrest’s courtrooms open and for Ridgecrest to request they be put back on the “immediate needs” list at a later time. So, last Friday’s meeting was at that time, and the request was being made. Heiman concluded her remarks by telling the council, “We are not here to dispute the need for a court in East Kern County.” Instead, “we are here to oppose any action that would leave its courtrooms off the ‘immediate needs’ list or shut them down entirely.”
After Heiman was finished, summer law associate Paisley Shoemaker stepped in to share some practical problems she read among the “numerous letters” submitted to Bradshaw. The contents of these letters “draw attention to a practical point that nearly all the letters emphasized.” She said, “What is at issue here is that forcing the public, civil servants, and law enforcement to travel over 75 miles to get to the next courthouse is an unreasonable ask.” She reiterated how many people would be inconvenienced and perhaps dangerously affected by this imposed trip. She said a community of 54,000 would be forced to drive at least one and a half hours “on a dangerous road in a remote area to get to court for divorce proceedings, custody proceedings, traffic violations, and more.”
Referring to a letter submitted from the women’s center, she said that during this long trip to court, there is a “real possibility of victims [of abuse] having no choice but to drive with their perpetrators.” She also referenced a letter submitted by the school district. This letter “points out that law enforcement presence near the school will be unreliable” and will risk the children’s safety if the police officers “are too busy driving for hours to and from the next courthouse.” These were just a few of the concerns in the numerous letters she submitted to the judicial council that day. Shoemaker concluded, “A failure to improve the Ridgecrest courtroom will place an undue burden on the municipalities, civil servants, and law enforcement.” It will increase risks to public safety and “make access to court services more difficult.” She reasoned that the judicial system should “focus on improving community resources in our state – not depleting them.”
The third attorney to address the judicial council was law partner Navi Dhillon. He said he has some “legal concerns regarding the process” and referred to an environmental act, CEQA. (The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, requires agencies to “look before they leap” and consider the ecological consequences of their discretionary actions, according to opr.ca.gov). Dhillon said one of the essential purposes of CEQA is public participation. He said it is agreed that the previous actions taken by the Kern County Superior Court were flawed, and “if CEQA had been activated, this very issue would have been prevented.” This legal act “is very good at making sure everyone’s voices are heard.” He urged the council “to place Ridgecrest back on the ‘immediate needs’ list.” He concluded, “If the council is not inclined to do [this], we object to the adoption of the recommended action on the grounds it would violate [CEQA].”
Last to speak was Strand, who informed the council of his 32-year background in law enforcement, and now six years as city manager, totaling 38 years of public service. He said that because of his experience in the police department, he is “very familiar with the court process on the East side of Kern County.” Reaching back in his memory a decade ago, he said that even back then, Ridgecrest was “on the list for a new courthouse.” He said that knowing its inefficiency and poor security, “the community and law enforcement have been anticipating a new courthouse for a while.” He said, “In 2021, we heard rumors there was a consideration of consolidation of [the Mojave and Ridgecrest] courthouses to the Tehachapi area,” so he asked why this was occurring. He talked to the Sheriff, the District Attorney, and the Public Defender, who all agreed on how vital the courthouse in Ridgecrest is to “our remote area, which supports one of our main DOD weapons centers – China Lake.” The Kern County Superior Court assured him that he would be notified if anything about this moved forward, but “unfortunately, we weren’t. Nor was the sheriff, nor was the DA…” He told them he gathered all the law partners together, took immediate action, and received a quick response from Judge Bradshaw. “But it fell short of putting us back on the ‘immediate needs’ list.” So, he explained he is “here today on behalf of my community – just to get us back on the list.” He explained that he understands the courthouse “will not be built this year” because of funding, but “I just want to get us back on the list. That’s important.” His main concern is that the Ridgecrest community “can have equal access to justice.”