In Sunnyvale, California, antiabortion protesters aligned with the organization Operation Rescue (OR) had grown accustomed to paying a $10 or $20 fine after being arrested. In cooperation with authorities, they would typically plead no contest in exchange for a charge less serious than trespassing. In this way minor cases were kept out of an already jammed court system.

Recently, however, the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office decided to up the ante to $130. Those arrested responded by demanding a speedy trial. And ensuring this constitutional right has produced major problems for the local justice system.

Over 450 people have been arrested in Sunnyvale in recent months, all for protesting at the same clinic. When the first batch of arrestees—248 of them—reached the Santa Clara County court system, the district attorney’s office and OR representatives could not agree on an appropriate penalty, said Mary Smedley of OR’s northern California chapter.

All but 10 insisted on their right to a speedy jury trial, prompting California Attorney General John Van de Kamp to declare a judicial state of emergency. Judges were summoned from across the state to hear the cases. Court and county officials said that trying the protesters would cost the county’s municipal court system $1.8 million, about 10 percent of its operating budget.

Reaction was swift and furious. It included a resolution in neighboring San Mateo County condemning what it called a court-clogging tactic. And Jess Barba, chief of the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety, the agency that made the arrests, said protesters ought to reimburse the city for the prosecution costs. Barba said protesters succeeded in tying up the system, but not in preventing abortions. ...

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