Law in a land of streams, meadows, ski slopes
MARKLEEVILLE – The only courthouse in Alpine County holds four jury trials each year. The blue synthetic leather seats show no sign of wear, unlike the enclosed law books dating back to the 19th century that adorn the surrounding back walls in glass bookcases.
Law in a town of 1,200 can be scarce and memorable. Pull it back to a county of 1,200 people and you get something more historic, visceral and unique.
Formed in 1864, Alpine County is the smallest county in California based on its population. Two ski resorts, Kirkwood Mountain Resort in the north and Bear Valley in the south, balloon that population with visitors and part-time employees.
As the only county exempt from the one-day/one-trial jury system, each season has a week designated for a jury trial. In winter, when Highway 4 is closed between the county seat, Markleeville, and Bear Valley, residents who cannot travel to Markleeville are excused from duty.
Will Richmond, the county’s district attorney, enjoys his job since it allows him to also work as a circuit prosecutor in other counties handling environmental issues.
“I came into the mountains to do environment work for a collection of counties,” he said. “I jumped at the chance to become the Alpine County district attorney.”
The county, with its 743 square miles of mostly pristine meadows, fishable lakes and craggy wilderness, creates many memories. Private practice attorney Bart Weitzenberg brightens at his own.
In Weitzenberg’s arsenal of attorney stories, it ranks at the very top and has not been matched by colleagues in more than three decades of practicing law.
It was an Alpine County case, about 15 years ago, the Sonoma County attorney recalled. It was a noncriminal matter.
Two skiers were enjoying Kirkwood Meadows when they hit an unseen cliff.
Weitzenberg sued Kirkwood Mountain Resort for not installing boundaries. At the onset, the case was the strangest he experienced, he said.
“It was a time warp back to the days of the old Wild West,” he said. “The judge ran out of prospective jurors to choose from and we needed some more so he utilized a statute rarely used anymore and authorized the courtroom bailiff to go out and round up citizens of the county as prospective jurors.”
Barflies and diners at the former Cutthroat Saloon, ice fishermen and bank tellers and their customers were rounded up. When the judge asked if there was any reason for them not to serve as jurors, all but one raised their hand. The only one who sat still was the judge’s niece, Weitzenberg said.
During the jury’s deliberation, Weitzenberg fly-fished in his suit at the East Fork Carson River, which runs next to the courthouse.
And, in the first time in history, the jury sided with the plaintiff, a win for the Sonoma County attorney and his client, he said.
“That case is not only the most unique case I ever tried but the most unique case anybody has heard,” he said.
Richmond said those times have passed.
“We’re not pulling people out the bars for our juries anymore,” he said.
But the small-town charm is there. Alpine County Superior Court Judge Richard Specchio said divorces are minimal.
“Its just a beautiful little town,” he said. “It just has the nicest people in the world; a real cohesion over there.”
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