Monday morning the court calendar was cleared before the bus got to Ukiah from Boonville at 10:37 am. At that time, there was only one courtroom open, Department A, Judge Richard Henderson’s court. Last Friday Judge Cindee Mayfield was filing in for Henderson, but on Monday he was back on the Bench, instructing a jury pool on their civic duty regarding a hit-and-run involving a dog, a pit bull.
“It’s not the crime of the century,” the prosecutor admitted.
When I got there the courthouse was as vacant as the venues of my recent concerts. The only people I encountered when I got through the security guards and metal detector were some clean-cut chaps in leisure suits with wires going from their hearing aids to their wristwatches. They looked right out of “I Spy.”
A Mr. Forest had been summoned to jury duty. Shortly after I arrived, he was excused. Two of his detachment escorted him into the young gentlemen’s facility on the main floor while the third paced alertly outside in the hall.
Another prospective juror was excused because she said she was such an inveterate dog-lover she couldn’t possibly hear such a case without prejudice. I empathized whole-heartedly with her sentiments and left, discouraged by prosecutor Steve Jackson’s assurance that the case was not newsworthy. He’s a shy man and doesn’t want his name in print, and I had an appointment with a cocktail across the street at the Forest Club. But before I got settled into the cool of the Club all hell broke loose at the courthouse.
A disgruntled murmur gained volume, drowning out the heavy traffic on State Street, and an angry chant soon overwhelmed Hank Williams, Jr. on the jukebox which was cranked up loud from closing-time the night before. I collected my notebook and went back to investigate.
As God is my witness! it was the clerks, the most genial, well dressed and personable people in the Courthouse, and, man, were they angry!
“No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace!” they chanted furiously, shaking their placards at passersby on State Street.
The clerks are professionally impartial. They treat everybody with the same polished courtesy, and they have to deal with some very difficult, rude people. They do much of the actual ‘work’ in the courthouse, and of course they get the least pay.
Quite a few lawyers joined the protest in support of the clerks, whose spokesperson was Kimberly Foster, a court reporter. A lot of the court reporters are represented by the SEIU County Employees Union, but they're under contract with the Administrative Office of the Courts, just like the clerks. These highly skilled and dedicated women (mostly) can take down the words of fast-talking lawyers at a rate of up to 500 words per minute — verbatim! It’s only when the witnesses or lawyers are under the influence of double espressos that the court reporters ask them to slow down.
Back when the financial crisis had just begun to hit Mendoland, the clerks and court reporters took the first cuts. By late in 2008, around Christmastide, they were cleaning out their desks, putting their houses up for sale, and calling home for advice.
Early in the winter of 2009 they took forced concessions, while the Board of Supervisors were getting the first checks from the pay-raise they'd voted for themselves. Not only did the clerks lose the third Wednesday of every month, which of course had no effect on the judges’ salaries — just more leisure time for them — their ranks were decimated and they all had to take additional mandatory days off, on a rotating basis, in addition to those mandatory third Wednesdays off each month. And there were raids on their meager benefit packages which had helped to make up for their low salaries.
They had two options:
1. Take it.
2. Leave it.
A lot of pretty people disappeared like smoke, to quoth the poet. The rest hung in there, negotiated a contract with the Administrative Office of the Courts, and now the AOC has “violated” their contract.
Let's be real clear here. We're talking judges when we talk AOC. Our judges make $180,000 a year plus every plus you can think of. They are as lavishly compensated and as fiscally insulated from the lives most of us live as State Senator Wes Chesbro and Congressman Mike Thompson.
Ms. Foster put it this way: “They had no intention of meeting with us in good faith, ruling over last year’s contract, calling it the ‘status quo.’ Ugh!”
All week the lawyers from the DA’s and the Public Defender’s offices had been wearing buttons in support of the clerks’ and court reporters’ gripes. One sympathetic attorney had been told by a judge not to wear the solidarity button to court again. Paying the clerks and court reporters livable wages and benefits as they erect a brand new courthouse for themselves a long block east of the present and perfectly serviceable temple of justice neatly sums up local judicial priorities.
Kimberly Foster is an attractive omni-capable woman who wears her straight blonde hair to her shoulders. She generally is assigned to Judge Leonard LaCasse’s court, Department G, as court reporter, but I’ve seen her in all the courts, including Ten Mile on the Coast in Fort Bragg. She’s the SEIU’s negotiator for her bargaining unit. One on one with the judges, put your money on Foster.
“We met the first time, hashing out ground rules,” Foster said as she described negotiations with their honors. “Then they announced they were going to keep things status-quo. They said they were going to impose a clause in the 10.5 Memorandum* because they didn’t have funding from the state. But they don’t have to meet their obligations until the [state] budget is passed.”
Clearly, the guillotine has been uncrated, assembled and oiled in advance.
Ms. Foster said, “The Union decided there’s no point in meeting anymore. The next step is arbitration,” she added.
The crowd was still chanting, eliciting beeps and shouts of approval and encouragement from passing motorists. When the noise subsided Foster asked me if I had any questions.
I wanted the names of the dogs responsible for this travesty of equity.
“Ben Stough, the CEO of the Mendocino County Courts,” Foster said.
But before I could write it down, she added, “He announced his resignation last Thursday. He said he was relocating to Colorado. The Assistant Court Executive will act as interim Executive. That’s Caryn Downing up in Room 303 with the rest of the AOC staff. Their spokesperson is attorney Scott Gardner. Our union rep is Jackie Carvallo.” Ms. Carvallo also represents most of the County’s line employees. She has her hands full these days.
I saw some reporters from the local dailies working the story and realized I wasn’t going to get a scoop, so I’ll save the follow-up for next week… if there is a next week at the County Courthouse. ¥¥
( “10.5 FUNDING CONTINGENCY: The court's obligation to perform the monetary provisions of this MOU is contingent on receipt of funding from the Administrative Office of the Courts and, if necessary funding is not approved or appropriated, the Court shall be relieved of its economic obligations hereunder and the parties shall resume bargaining on all economic issues.”)