A Mountain To Climb: The Inaccessibility Of Rural Courts

By Jack Karp | December 1, 2023, 7:02 PM EST ·

horse in front of courthouse

For residents of rural and remote regions of the country, easy access to local courthouses like the one in Ferry County, Washington, where a local prosecutor said a resident rode in on a horse after losing their driver's license, can be a major challenge. (Courtesy of Terri Whitaker)

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill in November, following the Senate's lead, that would add two federal court locations in rural parts of Texas and Washington state.

Lawmakers hope the legislation will improve access to the federal courts for those who live in remote areas. Experts, however, say there's already a sufficient number of courthouses to serve rural residents. It's getting to them that's the problem.

Long distances, geography, weather and even wildlife can make traveling to the local courthouse difficult for residents of rural communities, hampering access to the legal system, according to attorneys.

Even when litigants do reach the courthouse steps, those with mobility constraints may not be able to make it up those stairs since many older buildings were designed long before the accessibility mandates in the Americans With Disabilities Act were contemplated.

Some attorneys say remote proceedings have eased the problem, but others insist that the cost and lack of broadband and computers make online hearings inaccessible for rural litigants, who often prefer being able to go to a physical courthouse staffed by real people.

"There's this sort of 30,000-foot view that we'll put in the technology and people can just attend court differently," said Michele Statz, a rural access to justice researcher at the University of Minnesota Law School. "But it's so much more than that. It's so much more than just a hearing."

'Come Super Early or Don't Come at All'

One of the biggest barriers to the local courthouse for those who live in rural areas is distance.

In Stevens County, Washington, which has a population of 40,484, it can take over an hour for people in the county's most populated area to drive to the district courthouse, according to Judge Lech J. Radzimski, presiding judge for the Tri-County Judicial District, which includes Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties.

Distances like that are a problem, especially for low-income litigants and defendants who may not be able to afford the time off work or child care expenses that traveling those stretches requires, according to area attorneys.

"If they have to take an hour or an hour and a half just to get to the courthouse, they can lose their jobs because they don't have sick time or vacation time or personal days," said Columbia Legal Services Executive Director Merf Ehman. "If they're agricultural workers, particularly in eastern Washington, that can be a huge problem."

That's particularly true given that Washington state has among the highest gas prices in the country, according to Washington State Bar Association President Hunter M. Abell.

So does California, where Kaly Rule works as a family law facilitator and self-help center managing attorney in the two courthouses in Lake County, with a population of 68,000.

"Gas is expensive, and if you're living on the edge — you have a low income, you can barely afford to pay your rent or you're not even paying your rent — the gas to get to and from the courthouse is going to be a huge barrier," Rule said.

Large distances also make legal help more expensive, Judge Radzimski pointed out.

The courthouse in the county seat of Ferry County, Washington, which has a population of 7,178, is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Spokane County, which features the area's biggest pool of attorneys, according to Judge Radzimski. And lawyers making the drive to Ferry County for hearings will bill their clients for travel time — a bill many rural litigants can't afford.

Barriers like these are only made worse by closures of rural courthouses in places like Bass Lake, California, which saw its courthouse shuttered in 2018, and Coalinga, California, whose court was closed in 2012, according to University of California, Davis School of Law professor Lisa R. Pruitt.

"County governments are pressed just like all levels of government are pressed, and they're probably thinking we just don't get enough bang for our buck" out of rural courthouses, Pruitt said.

The lack of public transportation in these more remote areas makes it even more difficult for those without cars — or driver's licenses — to cover the large distances to some courts, experts say.

Public transportation in Ferry County, for instance, is "nonexistent," according to Judge Radzimski.

Lake County has limited bus service, according to Rule. That often means her clients can only be on time for their appointments with her if they come to the courthouse well ahead of those appointments and then wait hours in the lobby.

"Their options are: Come super early or don't come at all," Rule said.

Mountains, Canyons, Lakes and Snow

Rural courthouses can also be made inaccessible by an area's geography or weather, according to experts.

Mojave County, Arizona, for instance, is bisected by the Grand Canyon, according to Nathan W. Hall, architect and court management consultant at the National Center for State Courts. So a county courthouse that may not actually be that far away "could take you two hours maybe to drive around the Grand Canyon to get to your court date," Hall said.

Washington's Ferry County is divided by a mountain range that's home to Sherman Pass, the highest mountain pass in the state to be maintained year-round, according to attorneys there.

In Lake County, Rule explains that, "as the name suggests, there is a giant lake in the middle, and you have to go around the lake." In fact, Clear Lake is California's largest freshwater lake. "And there's no bridge that goes across it," Rule said.

These geological features make it difficult for people in rural counties to get to what is often the only courthouse in the county seat, Pruitt explained.

Winter weather only makes that geography harder to navigate, according to attorneys.

Ferry County Prosecutor Kathryn I. Burke remembers a former deputy who drove off the road "many times" in snow and ice trying to cross Sherman Pass on the way to the courthouse.

For many residents in and around Ferry County, Washington, visiting the local courthouse means navigating Sherman Pass, a stretch of road passing through the Kettle River mountain range. At over 5,500 feet of elevation, it's the highest mountain pass in the state that's maintained year-round. (iStock.com/halbergman)

So holding a jury trial in late fall, winter or early spring requires seating multiple alternate jurors in case a storm keeps some jurors from making it back to court, explained Burke, who has had cases end in mistrials for weather-related complications.

Not enough prospective jurors were available to come to court to even seat a jury for an October rape trial, forcing prosecutors to refile the case, according to Rusty McGuire, a partner at McGuire DeWulf Kragt & Johnson located in eastern Washington state.

In fact, when called for jury duty, many prospective jurors tell courts in the area, "Frankly, I'm really concerned about navigating that pass in the wintertime," Abell said.

Even local wildlife can sometimes get between rural residents and the nearest court.

"We had a defendant one time hit a moose," Radzimski said, "which is super random, but it's not unheard of."

Beautiful, but Breaking Down

Even when rural litigants can get to their local courthouse, the age and condition of the buildings can become a barrier as well, experts say.

Older courthouses, many of which were built in the late 19th or early 20th centuries with prominent, elevated facades, weren't exactly designed with access for the disabled in mind, according to Hall.

"There are just beautiful examples of the steps leading to the courthouse, and then what you'll see is there'll be, like, a little side door that's the handicapped entrance," Hall said of some older courthouses.

Ferry County's courthouse, built during the Great Depression, has no elevator despite the fact that the courtroom is upstairs. Instead, it has a slow and "cumbersome" lift that few people in the courthouse know how to operate, according to Burke.

The failing condition of many rural courthouses also means they're often forced to close, experts say.

The main courthouse in Fresno County, California, was closed in the summers of 2020 and 2023 due to water main breaks. Over a second stretch of time in 2020, a power outage shut the courthouse.

"We get emails every day about our boiler breaking down, so bring extra sweaters," Burke said of the courthouse in Ferry County.

And the rising cost of retrofitting older courthouses or building new ones makes fixing these problems impractical for many county governments, according to Hall.

Between 2010 and 2020, the average cost to build a courthouse approached $500 per square foot. Hall said that, more recently, he's heard anecdotally that the cost is closer to $1,000 to $1,500 a square foot.

"The cost of construction for courthouses has just risen breathtakingly," Hall said, adding, "It's just an incredibly expensive endeavor for a small county."

The 'Big Lie' of Remote Court

The growth of online proceedings has eased some accessibility issues, but attorneys disagree about how much impact remote hearings have really had.

According to Judge Radzimski, online hearings have "really helped a lot of people," making it easier and cheaper for litigants and witnesses to attend court. They also make it less expensive to hire attorneys, who no longer have to bill clients for hours of travel time.

Remote hearings have "greatly increased access" for rural litigants in Minnesota, according to Kim Pleticha, director of public affairs for the Minnesota Judicial Branch. In the week ending Nov. 10, she said that non-metro judicial districts in the state held 4,902 hearings where all parties were remote, as opposed to 2,112 hearings where all parties appeared in-person.

The increased use of email and e-filing also makes it easier for litigants to file pleadings, according to Judge Radzimski, who pointed out that all Washington counties now accept applications for protection orders by email under a recently enacted law.

But some attorneys insist that technology hasn't solved the problem of access to rural courts.

Broadband is spotty in rural communities, some of which don't have any coverage at all, McGuire pointed out. And even where there is broadband access, the often more-than-$100-a-month price tag makes it unaffordable for many people in these areas.

"Everybody talks about broadband, but it's a really big lie. It doesn't work. It costs too much, and nobody's going to service Fruitland, where there's a few hundred people," McGuire insisted, referring to an unincorporated community in Stevens County that has a population of about 800.

Even where there is sufficient cellular and broadband coverage, many people don't own smartphones or laptops, according to Statz, the University of Minnesota researcher.

"In so many of the prevailing self-help supports, there's just this presumption that people in rural communities have all of the same sorts of access that their urban counterparts do, and it's just patently not true," Statz said.

And while remote proceedings can make it easier for defendants and attorneys to appear in court, they can actually hamper those parties' communication with each other, according to Burke.

Often, the only time a defendant gets to meet with their attorney is before or after an in-person hearing, Burke explained. "Now they only ever hear each other's voices over WebEx," she said.

Finally, many people, particularly pro se litigants, actually want to come to a physical courthouse, largely because of the help they get there from courthouse staff, according to Statz's research.

Statz and others point out that a local courthouse provides more than just its physical infrastructure. The courthouse may be where law facilitators like Rule help self-represented litigants, where litigants can access law libraries and librarians, and where they can ask questions of court staff.

"Overwhelmingly, our survey data with self-represented litigants show that litigants almost always want to attend in-person hearings, which very powerfully counters the sort of message on the streets where we have this technological silver bullet," Statz said. "In reality, humans are what people want."

Accessing the courthouses where those humans can offer them help, though, remains difficult for many people in rural communities, despite improvements like remote proceedings, according to attorneys.

Resisting the impulse to close or consolidate rural courthouses may be one way to alleviate the problem, according to Pruitt and Statz.

But geography, weather and budgetary constraints are long-standing issues that mean many of the barriers to courthouse access are likely to remain for rural litigants.

"When the snow starts flying, that can be very, very difficult to access your local county courthouse," Abell said. "That's been a situation that has largely been unchanged for 100 years or so. That's not new."

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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