California’s second class access to justice

OPINION by STEW JENKINS

Editors note: This is the first in a three-part about problem’s with Californian’s access to the federal court system.

Maps can tell you a lot. Where you are. Where you want to go. How to get there. Sometimes they can tell you “why” things are the way they are. Most of us don’t think about maps that lay out the Geographic Boundaries of the United States District Courts. But when Kelly Gearhart’s real estate financing fraud got him indicted by a federal grand jury, his victims suddenly found that the map of the U.S. Central District of California meant that they had to travel 230 miles to the federal court in Los Angeles.

Witnesses had to travel these miles. Jurors, drawn from Kern, Santa Barbara, Ventura or Los Angeles counties had little or no connection to the San Luis Obispo communities that had been victimized. The concept of a “public trial” is, itself, strained when trails are held in such distant courts.

U.S. Code, Title 28, § 84 “gives” California four geographically giant U.S. court districts with only a few federal judges concentrated in only a few cities.

It is easy to compare if one flips the State of California over to cover the eastern seaboard at the same latitude. It would cover southern Georgia up to northern New Jersey.

Substantially all of eight states would be covered. Eleven U.S. court districts exist in the same area.

Forty-eight million people live within those eleven federal districts, served by 160 total federal judges. Districts are small. Folks don’t to need to travel as a party, a witness, or as a juror, more than 96 miles. For every 300,000 souls, there is at least one sitting federal judge available to try cases, whether those cased be civil, admiralty or criminal. In Delaware, the ratio is one federal judge for every 166,667 people.

Forty million Californians have only half the federal district court judges. The ratio here is one federal judge for every 500,000 Californians (an Assembly District’s population).

The size of districts denies access to justice. The northern district runs from the top of San Luis Obispo County to Oregon: 470 miles long. The eastern district is 600 miles long. Parties, witness and jurors frequently must travel over 300 miles just to access a court.

Our own Central District is little better. A party, witness or juror from Cambria or Paso Robles must travel 250 miles to one building where almost all the federal judges serving Kern, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties sit in central Los Angeles.

Californian’s have second class status when it comes to having access to federal justice. Whether that is civil rights justice, criminal justice, or consumer rights justice, Californians have been left out. Congress won’t fix this unless California asks them to.

Stew Jenkins is a San Luis Obispo County attorney practicing in San Luis Obispo since 1978. Jenkins’ handles municipal law, Brown Act and Public Records Act cases, estate planning and family law. He supports open government, the rights of working people to organize unions, growing the local economy with project labor agreements, the right of all people to health care and equal access to justice.

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