Subtle Warnings As New Court Cuts Loom

Listen with the right kind of hearing and you detect subtle warnings ahead of the next big wave of state civil court cutbacks. For example, when Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says, during her State of the Judiciary address no less, that California, “normally a leader in social justice, may now be facing a civil rights crisis,” you can bet somebody is drafting arguments. 
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

The “civil rights” issue has always been king of criminal courts, of course, and an array of rulings and legislation govern how much the state can cut in that realm. That’s why most of the court cutback anguish is coming to fee-collecting civil courts. But you see the next argument when the Chief Justice says budget cuts have brought “… unconscionable delays” in getting a court date in civil matters, including divorce, contract disputes and discrimination cases. The first two are one thing, the later is another and hints at the civil rights argument.
Many of the real court cuts are due in the April/May window in front of June fiscal deadlines. So you can look for a big-time increase in rhetoric; our guess is the over/under for lawsuits against the civil court cuts is down to 45 days. Read between the lines in the L.A. Times here.

Low-Income Tenants Face Harm In State Budget Cuts

You can add “low-income tenants” fighting eviction among those being disproportionately harmed by the Los Angeles County Superior Court reaction to state funding cuts that will cause a massive reorganization of the justice system. The impact will come from reducing how many courts handle landlord disputes: From 26 to five.

That means long travel times and the Los Angeles Times notes that in some cases that will mean a 32-mile journey. For some, the paper reports, “… the trips could take several hours using public transportation and include transfers on multiple trains and buses.” The paper quotes Neal Dudovitz, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, who also noted that he travel time is of particular concern in eviction cases because the courts move quickly, he said.

See the full story in the LA Times. 


California Firm Named In WSJ Asbestos Fraud Investigation

A small Northern California law office this week will test that old saying that “any publicity is good publicity.” In a front-page Wall Street Journal story, an apparently bogus claim leads into an extensive investigation. After noting lax review of trust funds, the WSJ reported… “so when a beneficiary of one David E. Knight came to the trust saying the former seaman had succumbed to the deadly cancer mesothelioma, the administrators didn’t blink. Within five weeks, the claimant received a check for $26,250. The only problem: There was no such Mr. Knight. Police say the claim was phony, filed by an employee of a law office specializing in extracting payouts from asbestos bankruptcy trusts. California prosecutors are investigating.”
The paper used the case as an example of lax overview. The legal center involved says it was an employee acting on their own. The employee has left the firm and did not comment for the story. But the story illustrates the mess that is asbestos litigation. (Los Angeles County was recently named a “judicial hellhole” for asbestos cases by a national business group.)
Connect some dots by reading the full WSJ story here.

It’s Getting Real: Courts Begin Shifting Cases Away From Communities

The dismantling of Los Angeles County’s once-praised community court-access system is getting under way, with small claims cases filed at the Torrance courthouse being handled in Inglewood and many personal injury cases, perhaps thousands of them, being moved from local courts to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown L.A.
The Daily Breeze newspaper is among those documenting the shift. “We do not take these actions likely,” Torrance Superior Court Judge Stuart Rice told the Daily Breeze. “They break our heart, but for the lack of funding this would not be happening.” Under the county court plan to create “hubs” where cases are heard, collections matters will be scheduled in the Chatsworth and Norwalk courthouses, and South Bay landlord-tenant disputes will be set for the Long Beach courthouse.
Read about these and other major shifts in the paper’s story here.

Stronger Rhetoric Used In Courts Funding Crisis

The usually judicious advocates for increasing funding to California courts are using increasingly heated terms for the situation, with the state’s Chief Justice getting a lot of Internet buzz after saying the results will be “… the dismemberment of the judicial branch.” And chief justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was not addressing some obscure civic group but the high-profile Public Policy Institute.
In published reports, she said that: “In the last five years, $1 billion has been taken from the judicial branch… according to the latest proposed budget, it looks like the judicial branch will receive one penny of every dollar of the General Fund, which is an incredible bargain for what we provide. So we do that without raises and without broadening our scope and without more judges… all the while our caseload remains the same. We continue to provide a forum for justice on an ever-shrinking, minuscule slice of the pie. For California, it means disparate access to justice, and in some it means no access to justice.”
San Bernardino County continues to be a poster child of the cutbacks. The chief justice explained that a San Bernardino resident, to get his or her day in court, has to travel 175 miles one way; you have to assume they have transportation, that they can leave work to spend the day in court. Then they have a 175-mile trip back.

Link to the report in The Courthouse News here.