by the Honorable Kirk H. Nakamura
At the outset of my term as Presiding Judge, I conducted a Strategic Campaign meeting at which all judges were invited to set goals for our court and discuss various issues relating to court operations. Not surprisingly, the primary collective goal identified by our bench was to increase access to our justice system. Accordingly, I have made it a priority to achieve greater access to our court system during my tenure as Presiding Judge.
Barriers to Justice
It is axiomatic that unless one properly identifies the barriers to our justice system it is not possible to increase access to our courts. I have identified several barriers to gaining significant access to our courts, such as having the ability to attend court hearings, initiate court hearings, participate in the court hearings in a meaningful manner, and access the court’s services, including its court files. The role of technology in dealing with these barriers to justice will also be discussed.
Attending, Participating In, and Initiating Court Hearings
Perhaps the most obvious manner in which our justice system can be more accessible to the residents of Orange County is to have justice centers located at a location that is convenient to all residents of the county. Unfortunately, this is not the case at this time (see the discussion as to a possible South Court below.) However, multiple other barriers also exist. The State of California has a diverse population and a large percentage of that population does not understand and speak the English language. Court interpreters must be available to criminal defendants by law, but such interpreters are not provided to civil litigants. This increases the need for self-help services that can service this portion of the population. This court is not open twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. Court hours generally coincide with the usual Monday-through-Friday work week, which usually requires residents to take time off of work to attend court hearings. The court has attempted to partially confront this problem by providing both small claims and traffic arraignment calendars during night court calendars.
The geographical problem relating to the locations of our courthouses is compounded by the fact that the present mass transit system for the entire county, particularly south county, does not provide quick access to all of the county’s courtrooms. The court has attempted to liaison with the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) to increase bus service to our justice centers. There appears to be a comprehensive bus system in north orange county, but not as much in south Orange County where the need is greater since there is no courthouse located there. However, the decrease in OCTA ridership has made it impossible to justify the cost of expansion of bus routes and frequency. The proposed Orange County Street Car project will connect the Central Justice Center with the Santa Ana Rail Station, but as of now, none of our justice centers is directly adjacent to a rail station.
Decentralizing and Relocating Family Law and Limited Civil Departments for Greater Access
Perhaps the most important type of court services the court can provide to the general public is having access to a Family Law Department, a Limited Civil Department, and Self Help services. Family Law departments deal with emergency family law protective orders and custody orders. Civil law departments similarly issue civil harassment restraining orders. They also deal with unlawful detainer actions and small claims matters which the public at large are often involved in. In order to navigate the often opaque and incomprehensible (to a layperson) court system, self-help services should be provided to the self-represented litigants.
To confront these problems, the court has relocated and decentralized these courts and moved such courts to its outlying justice centers. The court has also provided more robust self-help service centers to support such services. Family law departments are now located in North Justice Center in Fullerton and Harbor Justice Center in Irvine with attendant self-help centers. In August, the court will celebrate the opening of a Family Law Department, a Limited Civil Department, and a Self Help Center in West Justice Center in Westminster.
The problem with the decentralization of these services is the increased cost to the court due to loss of efficiencies. As long as the court has sufficient funding to provide for these services, they will continue.
Using Technology for Greater Public Court Access
The court system is using technology to provide greater access to our courts. Telephone appearances on Case Management Conferences are now the rule rather than the exception. The use of video appearances is limited statewide by law, but is starting to gain acceptance by the public, the bar, and the legislature.
The Orange County Superior Court remains a leader in the use of technology in the courts. The court pioneered the use of e-filing. E-filing provides for faster and more efficient direct filing into the court’s case management systems, which are at the forefront of court filing systems.
Remote interpreting and court reporting are becoming more commonplace. Our court has received five separate Innovation Grants, four of which directly assist the public. These include: Development of a Conservatorship Accountability Portal, Development of a Court User Portal with the ability to accept Online Payments, Developments of a Self-Help Portal, Development of an Automated Court Room Check-In, and Using Data Analytics for Court Management. The court’s goal is to minimize the public waiting in line whenever possible. The court’s motto is “On-line, not in line!”
Building a South Court for South County Residents
Over 800,000 of Orange County’s residents live in south Orange County and do not have a courthouse nearby. This constitutes over one-fourth of the county’s population, and it is growing. Rancho Mission Viejo alone has plans to build a total of 14,000 homes.
Court leadership has recognized this problem for decades. A small South Court in Laguna Hills with four courtrooms was closed some eight years ago because of court budget problems. A project to build a South Court in Laguna Niguel went to the stage of building plans before it was scrapped due to lack of public support. The court now only has a South Court service center in Mission Viejo to accept filings and payments to serve this growing population.
Governor Brown restored the $1.2 billion that California redirected from the Statewide Court Construction Fund. With the restoration, there was a directive to reassess the next ten court building projects statewide. The Orange County Superior Court has submitted an application to be one of the ten next projects in the courthouse construction queue. The options are to either build a new facility in south Orange County or to relocate Harbor Justice Center further south to better serve the southern part of our county.
Moving Forward . . . and Outward!
The goal of more access to court services is being achieved by the court through persistence, leadership, and use of technology. These services are not without a cost. The accessible delivery of justice to all Orange County residents is a laudable and achievable goal.
Having the fairest and most talented bench and staff in the country (which I believe we have) is of little practical use if the public does not have access to our courts. I hope you will join me, our bench officers, our administration, and our court staff in advocating and pursuing this very worthy endeavor.
The Honorable Kirk H. Nakamura is Presiding Judge at the Orange County Superior Court.