Sonoma County Public Law Library free, but needs help

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by Chris Smith, courtesy of the Press Democrat

In Santa Rosa (CA) there’s a beauty of a free-to-all library that you might never have noticed, though it’s been around for 125 years.  It’s the sort of library you may not need until you really do, a library of the sort that many may miss dearly should budgetary troubles cause it to go away.

“I think people don’t realize we’re here,” director Kim Tucker said from the handsome, harvest-hued interior of the Sonoma County Public Law Library.

Long housed on the second floor of the utilitarian block of concrete that is the Hall of Justice, the law library now resides in former Agricultural Commissioner digs a short distance away on the county complex’s Ventura Avenue.

As Tucker spoke quietly, several patrons perused the right side of the library’s collection of self-help publications, books and periodicals that cite courtroom cases relevant to legal issues often encountered in life. A handful of others sat and studied the law books on the left.

Tucker said about 60 percent of the library’s users are not lawyers but regular people who face a law-related challenge — maybe a neighbor or landlord-tenant conflict, a small-claims dispute, a family crisis, the lack of a will, the consequences of an old criminal record or a business-related challenge — and can’t afford an attorney or hope to avoid the expense of retaining one. Individuals who conduct legal research online often find that detailed information is not there or there’s a cost for accessing it.

To the typical nonlawyer who walks in the door seeking direction on how to resolve a legal matter, Tucker, the library’s only full-time employee, said “Everything in here is Greek.” She and her three helpers avoid offering anything remotely resembling legal advice, instead doing a great deal of steering and educating and referring.

“We’re all about information,” Tucker said. “We’ll spend time with people, explaining things. We go further than what’s here. If we don’t have a resource, we will find it.”

So there’s no dearth of information and assistance at the Free Law Library, which is open to the public from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. What it’s short on is operating funds.Glancing about the refined, scholarly space, Tucker said, “People are blown away that it looks so great, because we have no money.”

The problem is the 1891 California state law that directed counties to create public law libraries specified they operate on a share of the money each county collects in lawsuit filing fees.  The libraries are in deepening financial distress because the number of lawsuits filed each year has fallen off sharply. Tucker said the funding model simply doesn’t work anymore.

As law libraries up and down the state have made cuts to adjust to declining filing-fee revenue, she has canceled subscriptions to some legal publications and forged an efficiency seeking partnership with the library at the private Empire College School of Law, which she also supervises.

Tucker works with directors of other law libraries throughout the state to identify and seek to secure sustainable sources of funding. In addition, she’s marking the Sonoma County library’s 125th anniversary by trying to raise $125,000.

Tucker welcomes donations and she’s helping plan what promises to be a hoot of a law-library benefit party.  There will be Lagunitas beer, Sonoma County wines and food. Music will pour from Court ’n’ Disaster, the band led by Superior Court Judge Jim Bertoli and comprised of players in the county’s legal system.

Bertoli serves on the library’s board of directors and said while there’s a public perception that the resource exists for attorneys and judges, it focuses mostly on individuals such as those he sees daily in family court.

In about 80 percent of the family-law cases, he said, “At least one side isn’t represented by an attorney.”

Bertoli said without a free law library “we’re going to have people coming into court who are completely uninformed or misinformed.” Inevitably, he said, people in such a state are taxing to the legal system because of the time it takes for them to be educated in the courtroom.

The judge said he would like to see more of the people running Sonoma County businesses step up to support the law library because many of their employees require and benefit from its services.

Like Tucker, Bertoli grimaces at the thought of the law library withering and causing more people to take on the court system alone. He said, “We need to have some kind of resource that can help them navigate this legal morass.”