We all enjoyed Sunshine Week so much here at Voice of OC that we opted to extend the national celebration of government transparency by another week.
This Tuesday, we’re back in court.
Last week, after waiting a year for a series of public records, I wrote that our newsroom was excited to finally get our day in court to challenge the dangerous notion forwarded by the County of Orange that County Supervisors are allowed to act like feudal lords, able to conduct public business, with public tax dollars, completely in secret.
We filed our original lawsuit a year ago, ironically also during Sunshine Week - challenging official denials of a series of official emails about an incident where County Supervisor Todd Spitzer handcuffed an evangelist while armed at a local Wahoo’s restaurant.
Yet when it came to finally getting our day in court last Tuesday in front of Judge Walter P. Schwarm, Superior Court administrators couldn’t field a court reporter to allow justice to function.
Just as attorneys for both sides geared up on Tuesday, for a showdown a year in the making, they visibly started to scramble over something seemingly unrelated.
Attorneys kept asking court clerks where the court reporter was? Who would provide an accurate record of the hearing?
Court clerks looked at the attorneys and Judge Schwarm in a way that you knew something was wrong. Then they publicly announced there were no available court reporters.
They couldn’t find one available court reporter in the entire Superior Court building at 1:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in a highly publicized case.
Apparently, administrators have cut back the hours of about 90 court reporters to save money.
Yet who is saving money, I’m not sure.
We had to pay our lawyer.
And the county counsel there to oppose Voice of OC also got paid.
Many court workers, include Judge Schwarm, also were rightly paid for their time.
This Tuesday, we get to do it all over again.
Schwarm announced last week that he already had a tentative ruling in mind.
He rescheduled our hearing for this coming week, acknowledging that the dispute over the records has been ongoing for some time.
Yet the whole affair impressed upon me how, more and more often, key functions of our government – things like court reporters to document proceedings – are being trimmed back, underfunded.
Shortages like this, created in the interests of saving money, often end up shutting down vital public services, like our courts.
The impacts just happen quietly so most of us don’t notice.
Well I saw this one first hand.
It reminds me again that defending democracy often comes down to making sure that basics, things like clerks and court reporters, are effectively funded.
Without them, the First Amendment is often the first one that gets kicked to the back of the bus.