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The Hawthorne Court: Civil Litigation Goes Back to School

By Jean-Simon Serrano

Many civil trials in Riverside County are presently being held in the Hawthorne Court – a recommissioned elementary school in Riverside. In the past two months, my office has had the opportunity to try no less than three cases in this court. Though it is, for all intents and purposes, a civil courthouse, there are a few peculiarities to having a civil trial in a former elementary school that bear mentioning.

Space is at a Premium

While the courtrooms are decorated and configured as such, there will be times when it is difficult to forget that you are in a rearranged classroom. If your clients wish to have family members present, or if you are working with an insurance adjuster who wants to tag along, you should know that seating is extremely limited. Only two persons can sit at each counsel table. In one of my trials at Hawthorne, I was representing three clients – one client could accompany me at the counsel table but the other two had to sit at the back of the classroom (where there is room for only one row of hardback, uncomfortable, metal chairs).

It is often recommended that an attorney familiarize themselves with the courtroom before trial – this is especially true of Hawthorne, where it should take about fifteen seconds to do so. A cursory inspection of the courtrooms will reveal that the witness stand is on wheels and is located inside the well, between the judge and counsels’ tables. While portable in nature, the stand is difficult to configure such that witnesses can be simultaneously facing both the jury and anything projected via the overhead projector. Projected images are almost always directly behind the witness stand, and some jurors complain they can’t see the witness at all because the court reporter is obstructing their view.

What you may not notice upon initial inspection of Hawthorne is that train tracks run directly behind the school. Be prepared to pause hourly as freight trains blare their horns and roar by the building.

There are no judges’ chambers per se. Rather, discussions that are regularly heard in chambers or at side bar, are likely to be heard outdoors, on a walkway that runs alongside the building between the classrooms. Naturally, the court reporter is not present as it would be too cumbersome to bring the machine, etc., outside.

The Jury

It has been my experience, and perhaps this varies depending on the judge, that jury selection is done in the courtroom and not in a jury assembly room. This will probably have little effect on your voir dire; however, it could be a surprise if you are not expecting it. Additionally, I got the impression that counsel, and jurors alike, were taken aback by the school-like atmosphere of the court; and we all had to take pains to inform the jury that, while lacking the hardwood, marble, and tall ceilings of other courtrooms, matters heard in the Hawthorne Court were no less serious or important than matters heard in more aesthetically impressive forums. Unfortunately, I am doubtful as to the effectiveness of this admonition.

Limited Privacy

Be mindful that, when court is not in session, the jury will be mulling about the area just outside the courtroom. The “jury assembly” room and courtrooms are separated by a small courtyard, with picnic tables in between. It is in this courtyard where the jurors usually gather during breaks and before court. It is through this same courtyard that you, your clients, and your witnesses will have to walk should you wish to use the children’s restrooms, also shared with the jurors. If you wish to talk to your clients or meet with witnesses, you will have to walk behind one of the various buildings or stand in the parking lot. Likewise, there is no area designated for witnesses to wait prior to being called. A jury selection room may be available but this, again, opens onto that same courtyard where the jury is waiting. Prepare your witnesses for the idea that they will be testifying at an elementary school and perhaps have them wait in the parking lot until you are ready for them to be called. They will likely be shocked at the courtroom configuration and witness stand.

With respect to parking, it is important to note there are essentially two parking areas. You will want to park in front of the school, near the area where school buses picked up and dropped off children in years past. You will likely be instructed to have your clients and witnesses do the same. This is because the jurors park in the dirt lot on the east side of the school grounds. Having your clients and witnesses park in front of the school will keep contact with the jury to a minimum.

Suggestions for Improvement.

I have spoken with several attorneys about their experiences at the Hawthorne Court. Despite the negativity of their responses, all were mostly tolerant of their experiences, and each had similar suggestions as to ways in which the Court could be improved. These were:

Larger Courtrooms.

Many of the attorneys who had been in the judges’ offices adjacent to the courtrooms had noticed that these offices are significantly larger than the courtrooms. It appears the offices were enlarged by removing the wall along the back of the classroom and extending the offices into the other side of the building. Similarly, extending the courtrooms in this fashion would yield courtrooms double the present size and probably make them adequate. They are not adequate now. As a (very) temporary approach, they were tolerable. It is time to make them at least adequate.

Space to Meet with Clients and/or Witnesses.

This was probably the most common criticism. Again, there is no place to meet with clients or witnesses out of the jury’s view. A simple room provided for this purpose, away from jurors’ and others’ prying eyes and ears, would be greatly appreciated.

Area for Preparation/Research.

Several attorneys indicated they wished to have facilities available for last minute preparation or research – especially during lunch. Currently, there is no place to do this other than at picnic benches with the jurors or in your car. Some room(s) should be provided, perhaps with some internet access, such that preparation, communications with the office, or legal research could be conducted. Such a room is a small request and should be a mandatory consideration.

The Temporary Nature of the Court Should be Reassessed.

Every courthouse has its idiosyncrasies, and I intend this article not to highlight only the shortfalls of the Hawthorne Court. When the court was opened in January 2008, it was intended as a temporary (six month) solution to the judicial backlog in this county. Now, more than two and a half years later, the temporary nature of court is questionable and the shortfalls are increasingly difficult to overlook. This is not to speak ill of the court staff – whom were all very accommodating and extremely professional. Clearly, we still need the Hawthorne Court to help alleviate the civil trial backlog in Riverside; however, permanent changes to the court are needed to make adequate this “temporary” solution.

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