Malibu Courthouse faces uncertain future

The Malibu Courthouse, where more than a few Malibuites have come to settle up after running afoul of the law, has itself reached the end the line. County officials announced last week that the courthouse will cease to host court cases next year and reduce services in a cost-cutting measure after 23 years of operation. 

The facility, which has been open at 23525 Civic Center Way since 1990, is one of ten courtrooms to close in the next eight months as county officials try to offset shortfalls in the court system budget expected to range from $55 to $86 million in the next fiscal year. 

On Monday, Los Angeles Superior Court spokesperson Mary Hearn said the monetary cutbacks are necessary. 

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“The operation of 46 courthouses is expensive,” she said. “There was recognition that in order to start to garner savings we had to look at a reduction in the number of operating courthouses and operating courtrooms.” 

Hearn said the court system’s budget for the current fiscal year is balanced, but the budget for 2013-2014, which begins July 1, 2013, will be in the red. 

“All these changes will start to happen in the current fiscal year, so the savings can be realized as we go into the next fiscal year,” she said. 

The Malibu Courthouse employs 13 staff members, and one judge, Judge Lawrence J. Mira. Hearn said since the courtroom reduction plan is in its infancy, court officials are not sure if staff at the ten locations will be transferred or laid-off. She said all the judges, who have constitutional-protected positions, will be reassigned to different courthouses. Calls to Mira for comment were unsuccessful. 

“I do believe the court was looking at additional staff layoffs,” she said. “The court had layoffs back in June. That doesn’t mean that the staff in those ten locations is necessarily impacted. That would be a countywide reduction. It wouldn’t be just those staff members at the ten that would be affected.” 

Courtrooms in courthouses in Avalon, Beverly Hills, Huntington Park, Pomona, San Pedro, and Whitter will be closed along with trial rooms in the David Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in Los Angeles. 

Hearn said several factors played a part in deciding which courthouses would be “repurposed” including the cost of running the courthouses, criminal cases taking priority, an on-site lockup, where the next-closest courthouse is, and the ability of those courthouses to absorb the work that would be eliminated at the targeted courthouses. 

Hearn said no date has been set yet as to when services will cease or change at the Malibu Courthouse and the nine others. She said details are still being worked out as to how courthouse activities will change. At the ten locations, she said citizens will probably still be able to pay traffic tickets and other fines. But activities such as criminal and civil cases, probate, small claims, juvenile justice, and landlord-tenant disputes will likely be discontinued. 

“Ultimately, what will probably happen is there will be a reduction of calendaring matters at those courthouses, and they will begin calendaring hearings that would have been happening there at an alternate location,” she said. 

The closures are expected to bring a flood of activity to the other Los Angeles County courtrooms that will remain open at the county’s other 36 courthouses. The closest courthouse to the Malibu Courthouse is the Santa Monica Courthouse, which is 12 miles away. 

While standing outside the Malibu Courthouse last Friday afternoon waiting for a friend in the courthouse, Woodland Hills resident Jeremy Ceja said he’s not sure how he would feel about having to travel further to a different courthouse to handle a legal issue. 

“I’ve never gotten any types of tickets,” he said. “I’m sure for most people it would be a pain to have to drive a longer distance to pay a ticket, but they could probably do it online or call it in.” 

John R. Fletcher, an attorney with the Malibu firm of Fletcher, White & Adair on Pacific Coast Highway, said the move will send most civil cases to Santa Monica. 

“Small claims have been sent to Santa Monica,” Fletcher said. “There is no civil, not even for an individual trying to process small claims.” 

Fletcher, who has been in Malibu since 1986, said the courtroom cutback will also affect jurors that live in Malibu. 

“If they wanted to stay closer to home, that’s not going to happen,” he said. “They are going to have to go to Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, or even downtown.” 

The closing of the courtrooms at the ten courthouses is the second wave of cost-cutting the court system has done since the summer, when 350 workers were laid off and 56 courtrooms were closed. That was a staff reduction of 24 percent. 

While leaving the courthouse, a Malibu resident, who only identified himself as Mark, said the courthouse changes are signs of a tough economy. 

“The state is broke, the county is broke,” he said. “Why wouldn’t the court be broke?” 

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