High-Profile Courts Lawsuit Tossed By Feds

That high-profile federal lawsuit against California court closings and cutbacks has been dismissed, the plaintiffs announced. The Coalition for Economic Survival, one of the leaders among several groups bringing the lawsuit that included the state ACLU, said a federal court judge ruled the national government has no right to intercede in state court matters; it’s called the “abstention doctrine.”
The group added the the federal judge “… felt strongly that this was an issue that should go to either state court or the Federal Court of Appeals. But, he did not rule on the merits of our case. As a result, there is strong determination by teh attorneys and plaintiffs to continue on.”
The ruling was dated March 18. See the CES report on the organization’s website here.


25 California Mayors Opposing Prop. 8 As U.S. Supreme Court Debates The Ban

The high-profile U.S. Supreme Court debate over California’s same-sex marriage ban is, of course, getting plenty of attention as oral arguments begin this week. Among those commenting are 25 California mayors who are urging the justices to find the measure unconstitutional, including the top executives from Sacramento, Los Angels and Oakland.
Oddly, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was not among those signing a group statement that was being distributed by the liberal Courage Campaign. Maybe that’s because he’s a “given,” having ordered his city to fly a rainbow flag over City Hall through Wednesday. “As mayors,” say the mayors, “we have a responsibility to unite our cities, not divide them.”

Read more here.

‘Charging A Cover’ To Access Courts? $10 Charge For Records Prompts Lots of Pushback

It’s no surprise that a proposal to charge $10 per file for routine court document access is getting lots of pushback, and our favorite comment comes from a quote in the Courthouse News Service from a Sacramento judge named Steve White, who compares it to a cover charge:  “It would put almost anyone who covers court news out of business,” said White. “Whether that’s the intention or not, that would be the result. Through that lens you can appreciate that it’s not much different than asking a cover charge to watch the trials we preside over.”
Judge White was reacting to costs for covering the courts. The CNS gives this example: “… a newspaper reporter reviewing the day’s newly filed cases for news would be hit with a ten-dollar fee for every case reviewed, a sum that would add up to roughly $400 a day in San Jose’s superior court and $700 a day in San Francisco.” The story also notes that nobody really bothered to project income from the fee and other issues.

Read it here.

Federal Courts Now Face Own Shutdowns

It’s not just California’s state courts facing widespread closings these days. Federal courts, blaming the across-the-board “sequestration” budget cuts enacted because Congress and the president couldn’t reach a financial deal, are being blamed for employee furloughs and once-a-month courtroom closings, according to The Courthouse News. The CN said that “San Francisco, San Jose and Eureka Federal Courts will shut down on the first Friday of each month, and Oakland Federal will close the first Monday of the month.”
The report quotes Judge Julia Gibbons, who chaired the federal Judicial Conference Budget Committee, explaining that sequestration put the judiciary in “uncharted territory,” facing a “budget crisis that is unprecedented, one that is not likely to end in the near term.” Another quote that sounds a lot like the state judges talking about their financial problems: “We believe we have done all we can to minimize the impact of sequestration, but a cut of this magnitude, particularly so late in the fiscal year, will affect every aspect of court operations.”
Read more on the issue here.


Rich vs. Poor Increasingly The Focus of Court Debate

Street protests in Los Angeles last week against court reorganizations included speakers who stressed that California is creating a two-tiered justice system. One will be for the relatively wealthy who can hire lawyers, they argue, and the other will be for the poor who face longer waits, long travel times and increasingly difficult access to their courts. A new lawsuit even claims the changes are illegal (see previous posts and links).
Now the Tribune newspaper in San Luis Obispo has added its voice to that argument. In an editorial, the paper says that “… help that used to be available to assist those [lower income] litigants, 70 percent of whom come without lawyers, has been slashed to the bone. Help with forms, telephone responses and via email is nearly gone. Twenty-five counter service windows have been closed and the hours reduced for those that are left. Even janitorial services have been cut to the most basic level… if civil litigants are wealthy, they can pay for private mediation. But for the indigent, stuck in overwhelmed and understaffed public courts, it can take as long as five years to schedule a trial. For injured plaintiffs waiting for relief, justice delayed that long is a gross injustice.”

Five years? Read the entire opinion here.

Editorial Boards Continue To Lament Court Cutbacks

The new rationing system for California justice is gaining attention of the mainstream press, and over the past few weeks some of the state’s newspaper editorial boards have taken stands. It’s interesting that the opinions tend to be numbers-filled, a sign that the writers know their readership is not yet up to speed on the issue. You can add a very fine Sacramento Bee editorial, bylined by “the editorial board,” to the list.
Notes the Bee: “According to the [state] chief justice, since January 2010, 22 courthouses have closed across the state, 114 courtrooms have been shuttered, 30 courts have reduced their hours of operations, and more than 2,600 court employees have either been laid off or left and were not replaced… Scores of specialty courts for veterans, the homeless, people with mental illnesses and drug addicts have gone by the wayside.
“The result – access to justice, particularly the civil side of justice, has been dangerously curtailed.
In Sacramento County, for example, more than a quarter of the courthouse workforce, 230 people, has been laid off or left and not been replaced since 2008. Family law litigants seeking to divorce or settle child custody and support matters can wait up to seven hours to file documents… Help that used to be available to assist those litigants, 70 percent of whom come without lawyers, has been slashed to the bone. Help with forms, telephone responses and via email is nearly gone. Twenty-five counter service windows have been closed and the hours reduced for those that are left. Even janitorial services have been cut to the most basic level.”
Read the lament here.

$10 To View Court Documents? 1st Amendment Groups Protesting

You can add First Amendment groups to those upset by budget-crunching changes to the California justice system. They say a new $10 fee just to view court documents limits access to public information. The Judicial Council, the policy guys for the courts, say it’s just a way to fund the system. Peter Scheer of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition, also complains that the change was deep in Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget bill rather than in sponsored legislation – a way to limit opposition.
“This will alter and in this case diminish the scope of a personal right of citizenship,” Scheer told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which covered the issue this week. “It should not be done by trailer bill in the dark of night.” His voice adds to a growing chorus of discontent as long-promised changes in the court system take effect and as more details of Gov. Brown’s budget come to light.
Read the excellent report here

Daily News Offers Good Story On Court Protests

Looking for a good handle on last week’s court protests? Then check out the L.A. Daily News. That’s news too, because the paper has not exactly led coverage on the issue; nothing like marching in the streets to draw the mainstream media. That said, staff writer Christina Villacorte does a good job outlining the issues  of a federal lawsuit, especially the arguments that the court changes violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.
Villacorte also amplifies growing complaints that the court cuts took place in relative secrecy, reporting that “… The Save Our Courts Coalition, made up of community groups, religious organizations, legal aid providers, labor union and court employees, demanded that the Los Angeles Superior Court cancel the closures, hold public hearings at each of the affected courthouses and find other ways to balance its budget.”
A great get-up-to-speed link to send to your non-court-watching friends is right here. 

ADA Is Key To Court Re-Org Lawsuit

The Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, appears to be the heart of that complaint filed against state reorganization of its courts. The federal complaint, filed March 13, makes an argument that under the new system “… there will be no unlawful detainer courtrooms in the San Fernando Valley [so] tenants from the Valley will be forced to travel to either Santa Monica or Pasadena – areas to which there is no adequate public transportation route from the Valley.” Unlawful detainer is the term for eviction actions.
CCM staff photo

CCM staff photo

The complaint offers an example of a San Fernando Valley resident who now could access a courthouse six miles away but would have to travel some 30 miles to Santa Monica under the new system. The action, filed by a coalition of non-profits including a low-income housing group, notes that state law offers strict timelines for eviction cases and that lack of transportation might favor the landlords.
Read about the issue and access a copy of the full complaint here

Breaking News: Legal Aid Groups Sue L.A. County Over Court Closings

The lawsuits have begun over Los Angeles County’s plan to close courthouses and switch formerly community-based operations to “hubs.” Now a “coalition of legal aid groups” is suing in Federal Court, saying that shutting down those courthouses will deny access to justice. It will be interesting to see how court officials defend that charge since many have been saying the same thing for months.
Specifically, some groups feel that moving time-sensitive eviction cases to hubs also violates the state’s obligation to make courts available to people with disabilities. The hubs plan is set to take effect Monday.

Listen to a  L.A. public radio report on the breaking story here.