SAN BERNARDINO - San Bernardino County Presiding Judge Marsha Slough and top county law enforcement officials on Tuesday gathered with the Board of Supervisors to discuss the potential "catastrophic impact" court closures and consolidations will have on the public.

Their consensus at the conclusion of the 3-hour study session: to aggressively lobby state lawmakers for funding to stabilize the county's distressed court system.

Notice that another round of court closures and consolidations were coming began in October with the announcement that the Chino courthouse would be closing, effective Dec. 31. Then, in November, the Superior Court announced it would be closing one of four courtrooms in Joshua Tree and reassigning its civil cases to San Bernardino.

In December, it was announced that the county would be shorted more than $22 million in state funding for its courts, prompting the permanent closure of the Big Bear Lake, Needles and Barstow courthouses. In addition, it was announced that juvenile cases and drug court cases would no longer be heard in Victorville in order to make room for cases being transferred from Barstow.

Despite the closures and consolidations, the San Bernardino Superior Court system is still looking at a deficit of roughly $10 million.

"We are truly at a tipping point for justice in San Bernardino County," Slough told supervisors Tuesday.

Residents in the city of Needles would be the most impacted by the closures. The city borders the Colorado River at the California/Arizona state lines and is a 4-hour drive from San Bernardino.

Supervisor Robert Lovingood, whose district includes Needles, said he will be reaching out to lawmakers in Sacramento on Wednesday during a visit.

Lovingood and Supervisor James Ramos, whose district includes the Morongo Basin and Big Bear Lake, initiated the discussions.

The recent and pending court closures are the latest in a series of hits to the county court system in the last eight years. The Redlands courthouse closed in 2009 and the Twin Peaks courthouse closed in 2006 due to budget constraints.

Court Executive Officer StephenNash delivered a bleak presentation on the court's fiscal situation. He said the court has been dipping into its reserves in the last two years to cover expenditures, and that pattern will continue next year with $8.6 million in reserves being used to cover expenditures. He said the reserves will be depleted by 2016.

The crux of the problem: the state has failed over the last 15 years to adjust its budget to account for San Bernardino County's growing population and court caseload, officials said.

San Bernardino and Riverside counties were among the fastest growing areas in the U.S. from 1997 to 2006.

Nash said the San Bernardino Superior Court system is also the most under served in the state in terms of the number of judges it has. The county should have 156 judges to serve all its courts but only has 91, he said.

The dire fiscal situation surrounding the courts has gotten the attention of Gov. Jerry Brown and Tani Cantil-Sakauye, chief justice of California Courts. They have assembled a task force to look into the matter and the funding mechanisms available to the courts over the last 15 years, Nash said.

Slough said the court closures will have a catastrophic impact on disenfranchised residents living in the more remote areas of the county, who would likely suffer true hardship in getting to court for whatever reason.

The closures and consolidations will also have a major impact on civil trials, which constitute the bulk of the court docket, due to the dwindling number of judges and court reporters, Slough said.

She compared the situation to a vehicle operating with its red warning light on.

"If we were a car we'd be operating in the red, and operating in the red can be catastrophic," Slough said.

Supervisor Josie Gonzales said all options and technologies need to be investigated. She suggested video teleconferencing of court hearings as one option. Arraignments via closed-circuit television monitors are already a norm in the court system.

Among those in attendance during Tuesday's study session included the mayors of Big Bear Lake, Barstow and Hesperia. Public Defender Phyllis Morris Greene, Assistant District Attorney Michael Fermin and Chief Probation Officer Michelle Scray were also in attendance, as well as ranking officials from the Sheriff's Department and San Bernardino County Bar Association.

Hesperia Mayor Bill Holland said it was time for supervisors to form a united front with law enforcement and every mayor in every city in the county in order to get their voice heard in Sacramento.

"The push is now, because right now the Legislature is listening," Holland said. "The rally cry needs to go out quickly, and it needs to go out urgently."

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Janice Rutherford said she will be reaching out to the mayors in all the cities in her district for letters of support. Her colleagues on the board will also do the same.

The board will meet Tuesday during its regularly scheduled meeting to vote on a resolution to initiate action with lawmakers.


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