“We believe it’s against the law for them to conduct their protest inside the courthouse,” said Court Executive Officer Sean Metroka. “We certainly support everybody’s right to free access to the courthouse. There are laws in California that prohibit impeding anyone’s access to court services. You can’t even stand on the front steps and impede access. We believe they are not allowed to conduct a protest inside the courthouse … The main thing is, it’s our job to ensure equal access to justice.”
Organizer Emily Gallup and volunteer Don Bessee have been a continuing presence on the courthouse steps in the last few months, handing out flyers to people heading to Family Court orientation on Tuesdays and to Family Court hearings on Wednesdays.
The flyer advises those involved in Family Court to not allow mediators or the court to pressure them into making an agreement they don’t really want to make; to make sure the mediator is familiar with the history of the case, and that serious underlying issues are addressed; to tell the judge if the mediator makes a recommendation to the court they do not like; and to request separate mediation if desired in cases involving domestic violence.
Gallup, a former Family Court mediator, was fired in December 2010. She filed a grievance and won an arbitration award that ordered an audit of Family Court, but the award was overturned at the end of April. Gallup, who alleges the court violated state statutes and its own rules, still has a wrongful termination suit in Superior Court, which will likely not be heard until next April.
Gallup and Bessee went inside the courthouse Wednesday because of the rain, and had taken the elevator to the second floor, Bessee said.
“As soon as we got off the elevator, Sean Metroka and a couple of deputies threw us out,” he said. “He said we couldn’t be in there.”
The pair argued they were following the rules as laid down by Nevada City Police, but Metroka cited California Penal Code section 602.1 — obstructing or intimidating customers at a public agency, Bessee said. That misdemeanor is punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $400, or both.
Gallup called the confrontation “scary,” adding, “I’ve never been threatened with a misdemeanor before … I just got my first speeding ticket.”
According to Bessee, his group’s activities are protected as free speech.
Metroka “is willfully misinterpreting the code,” Bessee said. “He’s using a personal grudge against Emily to deny us our civil rights.”
Gallup left the courthouse because she didn’t want to risk getting arrested, she said, adding, “It doesn’t seem legitimate, to say I was obstructing people or harassing them in any way.”
Bessee later contacted the ACLU, and said they have agreed to open an investigation.
“They feel the situation was an egregious breach of civil rights,” Bessee said.