Campus courtroom offered up

Whittier Law School opened a practice courtroom this month where students can participate in and observe mock trials. They hope California's cut-plagued court system will host authentic court proceedings in the space.
(Courtesy Whittier Law School / Daily Pilot)

A Costa Mesa law school hopes to ease the stress on the California court system, which has suffered severe budget cuts, by offering its newly christened practice courtroom on campus for official legal proceedings.

In response to belt-tightening within the state’s legal system, Whittier Law School plans to invite authentic trials and arbitration to its facility. Such a setup would benefit students, as well, allowing them to observe the proceedings in the school’s fully functioning 4,400-square-foot courtroom, which opened this month.

California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye spoke at a grand opening for the space this week.

A substantial amount of funding to build the $2-million facility came from Whittier graduate Paul Kiesel. He is 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, leading to a backlog of 20,000 personal-injury cases in Los Angeles County scheduled for three courtrooms.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” he added.

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 soon 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.

The school believes watching a true court session will boost the facility’s educational purpose.

“Students can not 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.”

That’s contingent on a judge and attorneys agreeing to pay the school a small fee, DeVine said.

A jury trial may not be in Whittier’s future unless a dire need for space continues, Kiesel estimates, but arbitration or other legal proceedings are feasible.

“If you build it they will come,” he said. “I think that’s much of what’s been done at Whittier.”