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The fate of a 30-year-old court order requiring Santa Clara County to maintain inmate law libraries hinges on the outcome of a federal hearing set for next week in San Jose. In September, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Whyte held the county in civil contempt for failing to comply with the Access Content Decree 1973 order, which was established to make sure inmates representing themselves have access to legal books and other materials. The county closed all four of its inmate law libraries in 2003 and replaced it with a legal research system that requires inmates to make a written request to Legal Research Associates for materials used in their cases. The county says the system is more efficient, while critics say inmates often have to wait weeks to receive information. Either way, Whyte said the county shouldn’t have replaced the libraries before securing approval from the court first. “Although [the county] may have acted in good faith and may have implemented an effective means for pro se access to the courts, [it has] failed to comply with the Access Content Decree, a specific and definite order,” Whyte wrote in his Sept. 30 order. Santa Clara County Counsel Ann Ravel said the judge made his motion based on a “technicality” because the county did not seek the court’s permission. Now, Santa Clara officials will ask Whyte on Nov. 4 to terminate the standing order that would require them to reopen the law libraries. However, attorneys with the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley’s Public Interest Law Firm are hoping they can convince the judge not to scrape the order. They claim the county’s new system is slow and fails to meet constitutional requirements. “It takes much longer [to get materials] than what you can do at the law library,” said Tara Kaushik, an associate with San Jose’s McManis Faulkner & Morgan, which was retained in 2004 as pro bono co-counsel for the case, Batchelder v. Geary, C-712017. The county’s new system, the Public Interest Law Firm alleges in its court papers, “has made it impossible for pro per inmates to adequately represent themselves, because it deprives inmates of reasonable access to the constitutional minimum of law library resources.” The court papers add that if Legal Research Associates “does respond to [inmates'] requests, its responses are often inadequate, erroneous and incomplete.” Ravel, on the other hand, said she’s had no complaints about the new system. “We looked at it carefully,” Ravel said. And county officials decided that this system is “a much better way to get legal advice.” Ravel said she thinks it should be up to the county to decide how it wishes to aid pro per inmates. She said Whyte’s contempt order will likely be removed at the Nov. 4 hearing. According to Deputy County Counsel Linda Deacon, Santa Clara only has about 20 pro per inmates in its three jails and two correctional facilities at any given time, and the law libraries were available only to those inmates. But Legal Research Associates � whose services cost a bit more than it did to maintain the law libraries � is available to all 4,700 inmates in the county jail, Deacon said. In 2003, it cost the county $246,000 to maintain its law libraries, while the new system cost $247,000, according to Deacon. Batchelder v. Geary started in the early 1970s, when former county inmate Eugene Batchelder, appalled with jail conditions and the lack of legal resources, sued Santa Clara County. James Geary was the county sheriff at the time and was the original named defendant in the suit.

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