OPINION by STEW JENKINS
Editors note: This is the second in a three-part about problem’s with Californian’s access to the federal court system.
In article one of this series, the fact that Californians are denied access to federal justice was laid bare. On a per capita basis, Californians have only half the federal judges serving the eastern seaboard states, and California’s district courts are concentrated in only a few cities, at great distant from parties, witnesses and jurors in California.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution requires that jury trials be public, within a district which was established by law before the trial begins within the state. The Sixth Amendment does not say whether the district “previously established by law” must be drawn by federal law, or state law. No specific guidance is set forth, other than in Article III, requiring criminal trials be in the state where the crime allegedly occurred, and Amendment V, requiring that no person be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.
Without practical access to nearby courts, without an equal number of judges per capita to those folks living on the East Coast, due process under the 5th Amendment itself is impaired for Californians; arguing for apportionment of federal district courts by population.
Due process is not served when jurors live so far from the courts that their status as a “peer” of a criminal defendant or of a civil party is open to question. A trial conducted hundreds of miles from the community where a crime is committed is not truly public. A juror forced to travel from Paso Robles to serve in Los Angeles deciding a case centered in Compton, has as little connection to Compton as a resident of southern Virginia has to a judge and litigant in north-eastern Georgia.
There is some indirect guidance for how to draw and place judicial districts within a state. The U.S. Constitution requires that members of the House and U.S. Senate be selected by “Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.”
For California the 80-member State Assembly is the most numerous branch of the Legislature with each district encompassing 500,000 people. The 35th Assembly District, of about average size, stretches from San Miguel to the Gaviota Pass, about 115 miles.
Doubling the federal judges in California, from 80 to 160, and putting a two judge district court in every California assembly district would give California citizens equal access to federal justice. Access on a par with citizens of the states on the east coast from Pennsylvania to Georgia. In part three of this series, I will show you how California’s Legislature can start the ball rolling to, at long last, end the second class access to federal justice we have been burdened with for too long.
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.