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LtoR Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer, Attorney Edward Ortega, Sheriff Donny Youngblood, and Deputy District Attorney Scott Garver sit front and center during the town hall meeting at the Ridgecrest Kern County Courthouse. / Laura Austin Photo

Local leaders speak out against courtroom closure

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–

All seats, including the ones in the jury box, were filled at Ridgecrest’s County Superior Courtroom last Friday. After hearing of a last-minute informational meeting called by Presiding Judge J. Eric Bradshaw, the city’s justice partners, business owners, and citizens brought their letters and stated their concerns about the potential loss of Ridgecrest’s largest courtroom to one 70 miles away.  Many people gave substantive reasons why Bradshaw should submit a recommendation for the Ridgecrest courts to stay and hopefully receive money from the original budget for the needed improvements. After hearing their apprehensions, Bradshaw promised the participants he would make his recommendation to the Judicial Council this week.

Judge J. Eric Bradshaw

The meeting lasted over two hours.  Bradshaw began by giving a rundown of what had happened so far and admitted the Judicial Council’s decision last year was a “flawed process.” He acknowledged the citizens who were “promised a voice [by former Presiding Judge Colette M. Humphrey] were not given one.”  Now he must “devise a way of stopping the clock” and “hit the pause button.” He told the people gathered that he “needs to make a decision now.”

Originally, both Ridgecrest and Mojave were scheduled for new courtrooms in the Judicial Branch’s Five-year Infrastructure Plan for Fiscal Year 2022-23.  That is until Humphrey made a quick U-turn in January 2022 and asked for those plans to be withdrawn in a letter to Judge Brad R. Hill, who chairs the Court Facilities Advisory Committee for California’s Judicial Council.  Her rationale was space and staffing shortages in the current court facilities.  She wanted to combine the Ridgecrest and Mojave courthouses and relocate them to a “New East County Courthouse” near Tehachapi.  She wrote that this new courthouse “has the potential to serve most – excluding the City of Ridgecrest and its surrounding areas – of our East Division communities/population.”

But Humphrey’s letter was written after a series of email exchanges four months earlier with Ron Strand, Ridgecrest’s city manager.  Strand’s first email began September 30, 2021, and included all Ridgecrest’s City Council members, Sheriff Donny Youngblood, and other community leaders in both Ridgecrest and Tehachapi.  Strand informed her he had heard she had requested this plan and reminded her that the Advisory Committee had “unanimously approved…new court facilities for Ridgecrest ($55M project) and Mojave…”  just that past summer.

City Manager Ron Strand / Laura Austin Photo

Strand informed Humphrey he was surprised this was done without any input from Ridgecrest’s citizens, whose court building “serves an isolated community of nearly 40,000 people.”  This would force an untold number of Ridgecrest’s population and the surrounding areas to drive 70 miles to Tehachapi for most all court matters.  It creates an “undue burden on our community and…unfairly impacts crime victims…, the working poor and middle-class families – making access to court nearly impossible.”  He also stated that “the [upper] judicial officers should be open and transparent” regarding their “reasons and merits” of this idea.    

Even though Humphrey promised Strand she would “seek his input going forward” and would not “make any decisions without hearing input from all involved parties,” she wrote her letter to Hill four months later, breaking her promises to Strand.  So, as a result of these discussions and Humphrey’s consolidation idea, Strand and a number of other justice partners reached out to Bradshaw for a more just solution. In response, Bradshaw decided to conduct three informational meetings: one on Thursday in Bakersfield and two on Friday in Ridgecrest and in Mojave.  He asked for letters from all who planned to speak and offered three alternatives from which to choose.   The first was to take no action and accept the current consolidation plan, leaving only Division B to operate in Ridgecrest.  The second was to request a change to the current plan and to rescope/replace the proposed New East County Courthouse (4 courtrooms) in the proposed 2024-25 five-year capital outlay plans with a 3-courtroom facility in Mojave/Tehachapi area and leave two existing courtrooms (Div. A & B) in operation in Ridgecrest.  Finally, the third alternative was to request the removal of the New East County Courthouse from funding consideration for the future fiscal year. There was a fourth option several Ridgecrest leaders suggested, which was to restore Ridgecrest to its former place on the list. Still, Bradshaw felt it would be better to go that route in a separate action, and nothing could be done until the 2024/25 fiscal year.

There were many local leaders and legal professionals in attendance.  Among them were China Lake’s Commanding Officer, Captain Jeremy Vaughn, the Salvation Army’s Chris Noble, City Council member Kyle Blades, and the Chamber of Commerce’s President, Chris Hill.  Deputy District Attorney Scott Garver joined other judges and attorneys in attendance.  There were some whom Bradshaw called out specifically for their persistent actions in order for Ridgecrest to be heard.

For instance, he credited District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer and Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who “came to [him] stating their concerns.”  He also told the audience he met with Strand, whom he said is a “persuasive, effective advocate for the city of Ridgecrest.”  Bradshaw admitted to the people gathered that “the court did not hear [their] voice” but insisted there was no malice involved on Humphrey’s part.  In the court’s recent decision, they had only looked at statistics, such as the number of case filings, the number of past jury trials, and the number of judicial officers they were down.  He said they “failed to consider the human element.”

Mayor Eric Bruen  / Laura Austin Photo

After Bradshaw opened up the floor for comments, that “human element” was clearly articulated by many of Ridgecrest’s concerned citizens.  One important element was the call for justice.  Using an illustration all could relate to, Mayor Eric Bruen likened Ridgecrest’s court situation to some guy who had waited a long time in line for his favorite ride at Disneyland. When he was almost about to board, the attendant took him out of line and said, “Sorry, you can’t ride!”  He said Ridgecrest had been in line for eight years, and “now we’re taken out of the line.  Justice doesn’t work that way.”

Several local attorneys spoke up.  Roger Stein stated, “Losing a courtroom here would just be a disaster.”   And then added, “We’re supposed to have jury trials by our peers.  There is a very different jury panel there.”  Defense Attorney, Tracy Gallagher, noted, “One thing we are forgetting is the Constitution.” Raised as a military daughter with deep regard for the base, she said, “The people of Ridgecrest deserve to be safe.”  District Attorney Zimmer said, “Public safety is the government’s primary responsibility.”   

City Manager Ron Strand,  Ridgecrest Police Sargent Nathan Lloyd,  and Defense Attorney, Tracy Gallagher  / Laura Austin Photo

More practical issues were mentioned, such as the unavailability of adequate public transportation, the extra time off that would be required for base workers, inevitable childcare issues, and Tehachapi’s seasonal road closures from snow.

After hearing all the comments made in the meeting, Bradshaw said, “Trust me when I say a very forceful argument has been made today.  I have heard you.”  He admitted “there is no way [he] can make everyone happy,” but he “wants to do the right thing.”  He then promised his decision to the Judicial Committee would be made this week.