YOSEMITE — The search is on for a candidate for one of the most scenic jobs in U.S. law: magistrate judge for the U.S. District Court in Yosemite National Park, home not only to towering sequoias but to a tiny federal courthouse where park justice is doled out 52 weeks a year.
"It's the Garden of Eden," said Larry M. Boyle, a magistrate judge from Idaho who filled in at the park for two weeks this summer. "But the law is the same as in San Francisco or Boise or Manhattan."
The job, which pays $160,000 a year, has been open since June, when Magistrate Judge William M. Wunderlich resigned because of health concerns.
Felony cases that originate in the park are sent to federal court in Fresno, but Yosemite's magistrate judge handles misdemeanors from throughout the 750,000-acre park, including petty offenses one might not expect to see at the federal bench.
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"We get a lot of biking while intoxicated," said Laurie Yu, the courtroom deputy. "And biking without headlamps."
In summer, when visitors from all over the world descend on Yosemite, the number of misdemeanors, including drug, alcohol and gun charges, can be daunting.
"Everything that will happen with people out there," beyond Yosemite, "will happen with people in the park," Boyle said.
But the courthouse where they are dealt with, a small gray clapboard structure that is part of the Eastern District of California, has more than a few notable characteristics.
For starters, it sits beneath Yosemite Falls, where water cascades thousands of feet to the valley floor. A grapevine adorns a trellis out front, and backpackers follow a hiking trail that passes just outside the back door and the court's small holding cell.
A broad window behind the bench from where the judge presides offers a calming view of the park's pine, cedar and oak trees, and in the winter, falling snow.
"It can make it really hard to pay attention," said Yu, who handles all the court's administrative duties, including intake, docketing and recording.
Also distracting is the local wildlife, which periodically shows up on the courthouse steps.
"We often have a bear come through," said Ray Kern, who works security at the court. "And coyote. Bobcats, too, on a regular basis. They come up to the front door. But we don't let them in."
Boyle met a bear on a recent morning stroll near the court with his wife. "It was maybe 60, 70 yards away," he said, "but we didn't wait around."
Then there are the tourists.
"They're like, 'Oh, my God, it's a squirrel, let's take a picture of it,' " Kern said. "Come on, move it along."
Commute is tough
Kern has reason to keep things moving. For those working at the courthouse the commute can be grueling; only essential personnel, including the judge, may live inside the park's boundaries. Summers bring lengthy waits at Yosemite's entrances as well as periodic wildfires that slow things down.
Winters are even more taxing, with storms, blizzards, mudslides and road closings sometimes bringing traffic to a crawl. It is not unusual to take five hours to travel just 100 miles. When a judge is not available, some court proceedings are held by video.
In the summer, though, federal public defenders often rotate through Yosemite. A federal defender from Las Vegas, Jason Carr, said he decided to spend two months in the park this season after his wife encouraged him to take a break from the desert.
"It's nice being in an area where the temperature is normal," said Carr, who is living in a park cabin. "And the moon is so bright."
August tends to be one of the busiest months at the court and at Yosemite, which draws 3.5 million visitors per year, according to the National Park Service. Rangers issue thousands of citations a year, covering such infractions as camping within 25 feet of a main road ($50), removing living or dead wildlife ($250) and improper use of a pet in hunting activities ($500).
No place for softies
While the offenses may be minor, the manner in which they are approached is serious. During a plea session held last week over the telephone, Boyle sternly told a defendant that he hoped his various crimes — including improper food storage and camping outside a designated area — would be "an aberration." The defendant, who had also carried a loaded weapon and been under the influence of alcohol, promised to pay $500 in fines and behave. "I hope I didn't cause the whole park of Yosemite too much trouble," he said.
A legal assistant for the park service, Susan St. Vincent, said the number of alcohol offenses was troubling. "It's a dangerous place to be stumbling around," she said, "with rivers and cliffs and such."
The search for Yosemite's next magistrate judge — the 13th since the park's court opened in 1920 — will begin in earnest this month, with a panel of lawyers and others from the Eastern District evaluating applications.
The district's chief judge, Anthony W. Ishii, said an appointment was expected by year's end, and that 30 candidates had applied.
"This is not semiretirement," Ishii said. "You're going to be working full time. But the atmosphere, you can't beat it."