*Correction, This story originally misstated the number of court employees laid off in Los Angeles County, 511 court positions were eliminated, resulting in 177 layoffs. The other employees were either demoted or reassigned.
Over the last five years, California's judiciary system has been hard-hit by state budget cuts. Its share of the state general fund budget has been slashed by nearly two-thirds. Courts have laid off employees and hiked litigation charges. According to a statewide survey, more than 50 courthouses have closed.
Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders worked out a budget deal that restores some funding. That wasn't enough to end the cutbacks. The desert community of Blythe stands to lose its one-judge courthouse. If Riverside County court administrators decide they can't afford to keep it open, Blythe residents will have to drive 100 miles to see a judge.
Steven Moyers stopped by the Blythe courthouse recently to submit proof that he's met the conditions of his probation. He says if he had to handle transactions like that before the next-nearest judge in Indio, his three-minute court appearance might easily mean missing half a day of work or more.
"It's going to be a burden," he said. "There's a lot of people that are upset over it. Financially, they're not going to be able to do it."
Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, who represents Blythe, lobbied hard for an extra $100 million to help ease budget crises for courts throughout the state.
He said the $60 million agreed to between the governor and Democratic legislative leaders "is better than zero, but it's only two thirds of what we were expecting. I will certainly argue that this is one of the most critical situations. When you have people living 100 miles from the nearest courthouse, we're probably going to have to look someplace else if we're going to make that kind of cut."
District Attorney Paul Zellerbach said one option under consideration might preserve some criminal law hearings in town two or three days a week.
"It's still going to be a tremendous inconvenience," he said. "A lot of the other activities the court was doing, such as small claims (and) unlawful detainers will still have to go to Indio to be heard."
Blythe City Manager David Lane worries about residents who might not have a car capable of withstanding the desert's 110-degree heat on the trek to Indio. The median family income here is well below average for California. Lane says closing the court would also affect city government. Currently, police officers can work the streets no more than five or six minutes from the courthouse, until they're called to testify in trials.
"If we now have to conduct all our business in Indio, and now we're talking of course 200 miles round trip, the cops can't be on patrol here," Lane said. "Do we have enough money to hire two or three or 10 more cops for backfill? The answer's 'No.' As we sit here, I'm not sure what we would do."
Members of the Blythe Rotary Club have gathered 300 signatures on a petition to state and local officials, arguing that the court is essential to their community.
Meeting in a tiny restaurant dining room festooned with Rotary banners from around the world, club members open their weekly meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance, then a round of patriotic songs like "You're a Grand Old Flag." City Councilman Wayne Cusick says the people in Blythe have a deep faith in America. And closing a courthouse is contrary to their community values.
"Coming to Blythe is like stepping back in time. And you have time to think about some of the grander things in life: liberty, and freedom, and how you want to go about it," he said.
Ronald Robie, a state appellate court justice and chairman of a statewide commission on access to the courts, agreed that the fate of Blythe's courthouse has symbolic significance.
"Liberty and justice for all is only there when we have the courts. The courts and the rule of law are what make America different than everywhere else in the world," he said. "There is just a period of time now where we can't offer the services we always offered. But we have to be able to offer at least the minimum."
Still, in Blythe it remains an open question what that minimum will be. Riverside County officials hope to decide by the end of the month whether they can afford to keep the courthouse open.