Golden State leads national trend of civil justice rationing

The CCM is adding selected national news stories on what amounts to the ongoing dismantling of the American civil justice system. While we remain focused on California civil justice rationing, it’s important to know that the Golden State is indeed leading a trend. To offer an overview, we will cite a “classic” story from the Economist that sets the stage.
The magazine reported more than a year ago that “… a report by the American Bar Association found that in the last three years, most states have cut court funding by around 10-15%. In the past two years, 26 have stopped filling judicial vacancies, 34 have stopped replacing clerks, 31 have frozen or cut the salaries of judges or staff, 16 have furloughed clerical staff, and nine have furloughed judges.”
It’s only gotten worse.
But the Economist offered more insight into what the civil cuts mean:
In Florida in 2009, according to the Washington Economics Group, the backlog in civil courts is costing the state some $9.8 billion in GDP a year, a staggering achievement for a court system that costs just $1.2 billion in its entirety. To make up the funding shortfall, courts are imposing higher filing fees on litigants. This threatens the idea of the equal right to justice, says Rebecca Love Kourlis of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System.

Strong NBC Report Getting Some ‘Legs’ Online

Good news: The NBC San Francisco affiliate investigative report on the court backlog (see July 24 post below) is getting some increased attention online and the reporter, Stephen Stock, is continuing the conversation on Twitter. The Twitter conversation even includes some high-profile judges. 

Recent Tweets include “CA ct backlog: collection filings can take anywhere from 5 months to 32 months!!! depending on which court” and “court backlog DEFINITELY affects tenant/landlord disputes!

Stock and the “Bay Area Investigative Unit” took a look behind the usual reporting on numbers and “official voices” and reported on the stories of actual people. They highlighted a mother who has been waiting for her day in court for three years – over custody of her children. 

This is the first story we have re-noticed here, and if you check it out you’ll see why. See it here (and note that the written text leaves out some of the good parts from the video; they are slightly different).

After Layoffs, L.A. Courts Hiring Again – Judges That Is

After laying off more than 100 justice workers over the past month and eliminating hundreds more positions, the Los Angeles Superior Court has announced a half-dozen new hires for some $178,789-per-year jobs. Gov. Brown announced the appointment of six new judges last week, including two Superior Court commissioners, one former public defender and two prosecutors.
In one of the ironies of the justice rationing system, judges are protected in their jobs. Yet some have complained that they are actually not that effective due to staff cutbacks. Most judges begin their time on the bench after a governor’s appointment, and while they then face “election” most never face serious opposition.
The new judges are Loyd C. Loomis, Nicole C. Bershon, Beverly L. Bourne, Rupa S. Goswami, Curtis A. Kin and Teresa T. Sullivan. You can read more about them here.

Courthouse cutbacks create hardships for man with disabilities

By Sara Warner

ORIGINAL REPORTING: CCM publisher Sara Warner profiles Mr. Femi Collins, a disabled engineer who has become one of the L.A. County citizens impacted directly by closing of local courthouses.
Mr. Femi Collins, a disabled engineer who has become one of the L.A. County citizens impacted directly by closing of local courthouses. (Photo by Sara Warner)

Mr. Femi Collins, a disabled engineer who has become one of the L.A. County citizens impacted directly by closing of local courthouses. (Photo by Sara Warner)

When you are blind, the difference between 4 miles and 27 miles in Los Angeles can be dramatic. Here is Mr. Collins’ story.
Femi Collins came to the United States from Nigeria in 1973. He was seeking a better life for himself, his future American wife, and his future nine children. To Mr. Collins the United States offered a future free of political instability and equality for all under the law.

After graduating with a BS and MS from Cal Poly Pomona University, Mr. Collins pursued a career in Engineering.  With an advancing career as an engineer and a growing, supportive family, Mr. Collins personified the “American Dream” – until a disability changed his life.

[Read more…]

Bay Area TV Report Hits Hard On Court Delays, Funding

The NBC affiliated TV station in San Francisco has broadcast a strong story about court delays due to ongoing budget cuts, including a court critic who notes that the judicial administrators are partly to blame for poor spending decsions. The “Bay Area Investigative Unit” found delays in every one of California’s 58 Superior Court systems and documented backlogs that included 30,000 documents stacked on one court’s floor awaiting proper filing.

Among the hard-hit are family courts, and the Investigative Unit reported the story of a Contra Costa County family court custody dispute for more than three years, leaving five and seven year old kids in legal limbo.

“I see my children,” the mother involved in the custody battle told the station. “They cry for me.”

Watch the report here. (Editor’s note: the print version on the website is a bit different from the video, which includes more details.)



Coastal Lawsuit Backup Shows 1,837-Case, 20-year Backlog

What happens when the Superior Courts civil dockets get really, really backed up? In effect, the rule of law is suspended; there’s a great example of that with the California Coastal Commission, which can’t actually levy fines but uses lawsuits to enforce regulations. But, in a must-read story, the San Jose Mercury News says the state agency now faces “… 1,837 backlogged cases, some dating back 20 years.”
The newspaper says that the cases “… range from wealthy Malibu residents putting up illegal “no parking” signs to block families from public beaches to a company suspected of illegally mining sand on Monterey County beaches to property owners dumping debris on the shoreline in rural Del Norte County.” And there’s a bill in Sacramento that would allow the commission to levy its own fines, like the Fish & Wildlife or air quality agencies. 
So you can take your pick: The new law would finally give the commission “some teeth” or it could bypass the civil justice system in favor of another fine-producing state board. But as other issues face the slowness of Superior Courts, you can bet this illustrates a trend away from having “your day in court.” Read the story here.

Gov’s Appointment of South Asian Woman Makes Superior Court History

It’s making the rounds that Gov. Jerry Brown’s July 12 appointment of a South Pasadena resident to the L.A. Superior Court made a bit of history. Rupa S. Goswami, 46, is the first South Asian American woman ever named to the California judiciary, according to multiple sources.
The new judge has worked at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of California since 2001. She fills a vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Gary E. Daigh. While Superior Court judges are elected, most begin service via a governor’s appointment and few face serious political challenges after they are appointed.
There’s a good profile on the historic move at the India West news website: Read more here!

Give-And-Take Getting Testy Over Court Travel

The California Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) that operates the state’s judicial system is responding to a group of judges critical of travel spending, and the MetNews is providing what amounts to a play-by-play. The Alliance of California Judges, which has been critical of the AOC since it formed in 2009 amid budget crisis, opened the can of worms over both spending and transparency, asking for documents that the courts say will take months to produce.

Most noted was a judge’s letter to the AOC, as the MetNews explained it, “… in which the jurist questioned the wisdom of spending $911,950 on hotels in 2012—compared to $319,989 in 2010 and less than that in 2011— ‘at the same time court closures, layoffs and reduced hours at many of our courts were taking place.'”  The AOC has responded that it’s actually cut travel costs.

You can follow the developments at the MetNews here!


Report: ‘Sad State’ Of Courts Will Boost Arbitration

While noting that non-court arbitration has often been seen as anti-consumer, a report in the member-run news organization Voice of San Diego lays out a good argument that ongoing court cuts will boost the practice. It also cites a recent study noting that formerly routine business collection practices can take up to a year, making it difficult to do business in counties hard-hit by court delays.
“Historically, we have seen that people who want to tilt the playing field in their favor will use delay in the trial courts as a justification for that,” one official told the website. “It has less resonance where cases get to trial efficiently and quickly as they had up until this latest round of five years of budget cuts.”
We have already heard that justice system administrators are urging a “settle the case” approach to ease strain on the diminished system, and certainly arbitration is part of that rationing strategy. This is a good, balanced look at how that’s starting to play out: Read Here

Law Firm Lists Some Effects From Ongoing Court Cutbacks

Until the mainstream media returns its spotlight on the cuts in civil court funding, which we can assume will happen once the failing system causes a high-profile incident, those involved in the justice community continue to note the demise. One of those is the L.A. law firm of Girardi-Keese, which uses its website to list “only a few” of the effects.
They list: In Stanislaus County, parents must wait 17 weeks for a family court mediator; more than 100 courtrooms have closed statewide, more than 50 in Los Angeles County alone; paying a traffic ticket in San Francisco can take four hours; more than 2,600 court employees have lost their jobs.
The firm of course calls for changes. See their efforts here.