An Orange County law school hopes to ease the stress on the financially burdened California court system by offering its newly christened practice courtroom on campus as a venue for official legal proceedings.
Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa will offer to host public court proceedings, including trials and arbitration hearing. Such an arrangement would benefit students, allowing them to observe the proceedings in the school's fully functioning 4,400-square-foot courtroom, officials said.
The courtroom opened this month and California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye spoke at its grand opening.
A substantial amount of funding to build the $2-million facility came from Whittier graduate Paul Kiesel, co-chairman of the Open Courts Coalition, a bipartisan group of lawyers lobbying Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature to reverse cuts to California's courts.
"In the last five years, the courts' budget has been cut by $1 billion," Kiesel said. He said the cuts have resulted in a backlog of 20,000 personal-injury cases in Los Angeles County alone.
"We're in uncharted territory," Kiesel said.
Because of that, he hopes Whittier could ease some pressure through the rare practice of hosting public court proceedings at a private law school.
"It should quite frankly be in a public courthouse," Kiesel said. "But the way our budget funding is going, it may be that law schools are going to be providing the basic services."
Whittier plans to approach judges and attorneys to offer the space, which includes a 134-seat spectator gallery, jury room and judge's chambers, school spokeswoman Judy DeVine said.
Students have been practicing in the facility since it was finished in early April and observing mock trials with jury deliberations. School officials believe watching a real-life court session will boost the facility's educational purpose.
"Students cannot only practice in the new courtroom, but they will be able to observe actual trials without having to leave the campus," said Penelope Bryan, Whittier's dean. "We can hold proceedings right here."
But that's contingent on a judge and attorneys agreeing to pay the school a small fee, DeVine said.
Jury trials may not be in Whittier's future, unless the dire need for space gets worse, Kiesel said, but arbitration or other legal proceedings are feasible.