HuffPo Blogger Hits L.A. Courts Pretty Hard

Editor’s Note: The CCM will not be updated Monday due to the Labor Day holiday. See you Tuesday!
Writer Steve Bevilacqua is not too happy with the L.A. courts and much prefers the no-frills justice handed out by Judge Judy. In a Huffington Post blog, he first wonders “… is a Hollywood soundstage the best place to find true justice in Los Angeles? Based on my legal experience, both real and televised, the answer is a resounding yes.” Then he writes that “… our court system is in the hands of self-serving clowns who care about nothing more than their own performance record. Looking at history, I suppose this isn’t anything new, but in this age of access and information, maybe it’s time the courts tried a little harder to fulfill their original purpose of setting things right.”
After outlining his ongoing legal battles stemming from getting hit by a car, he adds that “amazingly enough, in one extremely loud afternoon, my fiasco was set right by the modern-day Solomon known as Judge Judy. The actual court system spent months squeezing every technicality in their agonized efforts to send me to prison at the expense of the obvious truth. Judge Judy was direct and ferociously sensible.”
It’s a compelling story, but you wonder if he knows the small claims court in Santa Monica, which was the basis for all those People’s Court shows,  actually just closed?

Placer County Seeks Input On Next Cuts

Here’s a novel idea: A county Superior Court facing dramatic budget cuts actually asks for public input in what it should do. That is what’s happening in Placer County, according to a report by Kathy Robertson in the Sacramento Business Journal. That will offer another example for critics of the Los Angeles Superior Court who lament a lack of public input into recent cuts there.
The Business Journal says that the Placer County Superior Court faces a $1.8 million deficit in its 2013-14 budget. The newspaper says the “… the proposed baseline budget includes expenses of more than $17 million, almost $13 million in salaries, wages and benefits. This reflects a more than 40 percent reduction in filled positions since 2009, changes in employee compensation and discontinuation of some programs.” The report also notes that “new money” added to the courts budget in last-minute budget moves hardly makes up for long-term cuts. 
Read the story here

Admin Raises Amid Worker Layoffs Riles A Writer

Wow. We can add Lois Henry to the list of columnists who are less than thrilled with how California’s civil courts are being administered. The regular columnist for The Bakersfield Californian newspaper took exception to a decision to grant raises for some administrative staff while courtrooms and even entire courthouses are being closed. 
Noting that court budgets have taken “hit after hit” the writer adds “… but even worse, the courts’ own administrator, aptly known as the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), seems hell bent on spending what little money the Legislature has carved out for local courts on, well, administrative claptrap … it’s been a years-long problem that only recently received a withering eye from the Legislature as reports have uncovered unbelievable waste within the AOC. Still, California’s Chief Justice recently approved 3.5 percent raises for hundreds of AOC, appellate and Supreme Court employees.”
She also quotes Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe, who is also executive director of the Alliance of California Judges, a group she notes “… has struggled to shed light on how the AOC’s spending has affected the public’s right to access its court system.” Judge Lampe tells her that “… we’ve lost 2,500 jobs and had to close 80 courtrooms throughout the state, yet the oversight staff in San Francisco gets a pay raise. It sends the wrong message.”

This ‘Third Branch’ Funding Story Sounds Familiar

Lawmakers who pretty much ignore budget reality. A chief executive with budget priorities that do not include some other branch of government. Massive cuts to the services that actually help citizens, but little pain for judges and prosecutors who are more or less locked into their jobs. If that sounds like California, and it does, then it’s worth noting that it also sounds like the federal government.
There’s a great piece by Andrew Cohen on the San Francisco “beyondchron” website that takes U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to task over recent lip service to the issue. And Cohen cuts to the chase with this: “… a Congress that tripped all over itself earlier this year to ensure that there would be no flight delays because of the sequester has been remarkably content to run our judiciary into the ground– and to then hide from the blame that comes with refusing to adequately fund the third branch of government. “
And how much does this sound like the conversation in California? The Cohen piece talks about a meeting between judges and Vice President Biden: “When cases lag, the Judiciary is seen as inefficient, or worse, unsympathetic to litigants ranging from pro-se litigants (who represent themselves) to individuals and companies seeking bankruptcy relief or the resolution of civil disputes to the government and defendants in criminal cases.” Cohen even calls for consideration of a slow-down strike, arguing “… if lawmakers are going to treat the judiciary like it’s a third-world operation perhaps its time to show those lawmakers what a third-world operation actually looks like.”
Except, one might argue, California is about to do that without the benefit of a strike. Read the Cohen piece here.

Next Budget Milestone: Sept. 13

The next chance at revising California’s budget is Sept. 13, and already the judicial branch is finding that the governor is unlikely to treat it as a special “separate” branch of government. The Courthouse News Service has a telling story about last week’s exchange between the state’s Judicial Council, which sets policy for the courts, and the state finance director, Michael Cohen.
The meeting was a briefing on upcoming state spending process. The CNS reports that “… some judges were more specific in their concerns, such as the governor’s plan to sweep the trial courts’ reserve funds, used to meet obligations like payroll, into one statewide pot. Under the plan, courts are to keep only one percent of their operating budgets in reserve.” That’s a problem for some systems because each of the state’s 58 court systems is, in effect, an independent entity for many functions like paying bills.
Director Cohen also noted that the days of a governor simply taking the judicial budget and “passing it on” to the legislature are unlikely to return. Read the Courthouse News story here.

Inmate Release Offering Lessons For Civil Courts?

For those seeking court reform, whether civil or criminal, the ongoing issue of releasing some 10,000 California inmates offers some potential lessons. For one thing, it suggests that the only real reason this issue is being addressed is that a federal court has ordered the release, prompting a shift in attitude. Exhibit I in this discussion has become a Los Angeles Times editorial that even blamed poor news coverage for part of the problem.
And the Times did not hesitate to say that the “… [court]’s] population reduction order, and the courts’ hard line on enforcing it, has moved the state and counties, reluctantly, to set priorities for prison space and consider alternative community-based sentencing. There is little evidence to suggest that state officials will move faster or smarter if the order is softened.” 
In effect, the newspaper is saying that the only reason the issues of addiction and repeat crimes are being addressed is that a court order eliminated a “headline-by-headline” political approach that ignored core challenges. That’s not only quite an indictment, but it suggests that any reform movement on the civil side of the courts equation will face a long road before obtaining improvements. It also suggests that only federal court pressure, say from problems with ADA compliance, will force the state to move.
Check out the Times take here.

Trial Courts Held ‘Hostage’ In Security Cost Dispute

Now even the most basic courthouse security is a budget issue. In effect, California’s sheriffs and its judges are having a debate over paying for deputies who protect the courts. The Courthouse News Service explains that “… at the heart of the dispute is the question of who should ask the Legislature for the money to pay local sheriff departments for courthouse security.
The issue brought heated comments during a meeting earlier this month where judges settled on proposed distributions within the trial court slice of the roughly $3.4 billion California court budget… the trial courts are in agreement that funding for security should be on the list of priorities submitted to Gov. Jerry Brown’s finance department, said committee chair Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento. But there is a dispute over who should make the request.
Part of the argument is that law enforcement budget requests are better received by the legislature and governor than court funding requests. It’s a story that tells us a lot about the status of civil courts in the state, and you can read it here.

Paper Notes $93 Million Question For Trial Courts

The Desert Dispatch newspaper in San Bernardino County is among few outlets noting that the California Judicial Council will decide THIS WEEK where to allocate up to $93 million of “special funds” to support trial courts. Meeting in San Francisco starting Thursday, that group will evaluate recommendations from yet another committee, the “Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee.”
Citing the “state judiciary,” the Desert Dispatch says “… the two special funds provide primary support to self help centers, technology support and initiatives, the civil litigation program, education of judges and court staff and reimbursement for other court costs.” To some, especially to labor leaders, that seems like money that is not going directly to save courthouse jobs – an issue that links back to the state budget mandate for some budget increases to target jobs and keeping courthouses open.
To read more, check out the story here.

Appeals Court Rules On Long-Standing Appeal Of Deputy Dismissal

A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy (turned security officer) in a labor case that began with a firing in 1990 and illustrates how “old” information can surface on the Internet. Among the issues was if employment records obtained online could be considered the same as “non-public” records and if the California Science Center acted property when it discovered previous information.
In effect, the employee explained his dismissal from the sheriff’s department in way, but it later surfaced that there was more possible wrongdoing involved. That came to light in 2007, years after the incident and after the employee had been working and received promotions. The worker’s legal team argued that online information should not be allowed for consideration because it was obtained without a waiver or other legal means for obtaining employment records. The Science Center countered that it got the information from the Internet.
You can read about California Science Center v. State Personnel Board (Arellanes), 13 S.O.S. 4282 at the MetNews here.

‘System Failure’ Closes ‘Public’ Court Budget Meeting

State officials are blaming a “systems failure” for loss of an audiocast feed that effectively shut unions and others out of a key budget-allocation meeting this week. The failure took on added impact, union leadership noted, because they had not received timely notice about the meeting and were relying on the audio. While the Administrative Office of the Courts set up a conference line for some of the budget committee members, there were not enough lines for labor officials and even legislative aides who wanted to hear about how court money is being divided.
The Courthouse News quoted Michelle Castro with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) saying that  “… we have a vested interest in trial court funding; how the funds get distributed and what purposes they are establishing priorities around,” Michelle Castro with the SEIU said in an interview. “We’re at a very critical juncture in the trial courts. We are going through extreme amounts of cuts on the backs of court workers.”
At issue are deliberations of a special advisory committee for trial court budgets that approved roughly $72 million for programs supporting the trial courts and technology projects. The Courthouse News reported that the “… allocations included $18 million to maintain interim versions of the now-defunct Court Case Management System and the Arizona server that hosts it.” That’s bound to raise eyebrows because the state legislature approved a last-minute $60 million for trail courts with the direction it be used to save jobs and keep courts open – there has been a concern that money might be directly spent on other areas or diverted to replace money that would have otherwise gone for those purposes. 
     “Our big issue is the Legislature said this $60 million was directly supposed to go to making sure the court doors were open. Is that really happening?” said a union official in the Courthouse News story. Read more here.