Judges Might Hear Cases Of Political Donors

A California Supreme Court ethics committee is seeking comments on a draft opinion that would allow state judges to hear cases of lawyers whose firms have donated to the judge’s campaigns, just so long as no single attorney trying that specific case has given more than $1,500. Judges would have to disclose the contribution, but could still hear the case.
The Metropolitan News is reporting details that “… the issue involves the interpretation of Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.1(a)(9)(a), which mandates judicial disqualification when a “lawyer in the proceeding” has donated more than $1,500 to the judge’s campaign. The draft opinion would clarify that the statute does not apply to contributions by a firm, and does not provide for aggregation of smaller contributions by individual lawyer.”
The deadline for comment on either opinion is Nov. 15,  and comments may be submitted at the site, or by email, or by regular mail. The draft opinions and invitation to comment are posted on the committee’s website here. The full MetNews story is here.

Chief Justice Notices ‘Two-Tiered’ Court System

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

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

Anyone seeking evidence that California has created a two-tier system that denies justice to lower income residents can just ask the state’s chief justice. Echoing a host of earlier comments, Tani Cantil-Sakauye told KQED News that “The truth is, those who can will use other, private alternatives… but those of us who need to go to the court, who don’t have those resources, find ourselves frankly getting a second system of justice.” 
The report also included that “… the Chief said severe state budget cuts had created a ‘two-tier system of justice’ in California, where shuttered courthouses and shorter courtroom hours are ‘basically denying justice across the state.'” The comment continue a consistent message from state court managers that the system is broken and that the losers include lower and moderate income people who need the courts.
See video and read more about this particular interview, which includes that the chief justice self-identified as a Republican, here.  

‘Gold Rush’ On For Court Technologies

California may not have enough money to keep community courthouses open, but it has plenty for the next wave of tech upgrades in the wake of that half-billion-dollar failure Court Case Management System failure. In fact, Maria Dinezo at the Courthouse News Service writes that “… a new gold rush has come to California, with the state’s massive legal system open for mining as courts and lawyers move to new technology.”
The report notes that gold rushers “… are scrambling for a mother lode of multimillion-dollar contracts for software and licensing, vast additional sums for upkeep, and the right to set up a toll booth on Court Road for 38 million people.” Some clear winners are identified, as “… a group of judges, tech staff and administrators wrote a model contract and selected three top bidders: New Mexico-based Justice Systems Inc., Texas-based Tyler Technologies and Pennsylvania-based LT-Tech owned by Thompson Reuters formerly West Publishing.”
Included in the model contract: The right to charge lawyers a fee for every document electronically filed, perhaps around $5. Dinezo does some math: “In one big Southern California court, for example, about 750,000 documents are projected to be filed this year. That’s in Orange County’s civil section alone. Multiplied by a $5 fee, the flow of money would amount to $3 million a year. Extrapolating based on population, total income from the per-document fees could easily rise to $40 million a year throughout the state, paid by California’s lawyers.”
And that’s just for civil litigation and does not include separate fees for stuff like installation and upkeep. Follow more of the money here.

Debate Continues On Civil Jury Access, Reductions

Money is one resource that forces justice rationing, but jury time is another. When Gov. Brown recently vetoed a jury overhaul bill, the focus was rightly on the issue of allowing non-citizens to serve on the panels. Less reported were issues that would reduce the jury size in some criminal cases and virtually all civil trials.
The Sacramento Bee had a recent editorial calling for jury reform and offering some numbers. Says the newspaper: “Statewide approximately 10 million jurors are summoned for service, but only 4 million of those are available and qualified for the task. And even fewer, 1.5 million prospective jurors, actually report to courts. Courts struggle to find sufficient numbers of jurors to serve and the cost of jury service to the courts and to those who serve has become a real strain.” 
In a reform idea supported by the Bee, “… in all civil cases, the number of jurors would be reduced from 12 to eight… it’s estimated that the changes proposed would save beleaguered California courts an estimated $5.1 million annually in direct costs. Community costs, which include the loss of productivity, wages and business activity, would be reduced by approximately $174 million annually.”
But the idea is not really to save money. The fact is that “jury time” is a resource that’s in short supply, and the battle for access mirrors the sorts of decisions forced by the lack of funding. Read the newspaper’s opinion, and other California editorials gathered by the Associated Press, here

Writer Details Court Funding Issues

Dan Walters, best known for covering the state legislature for the Sacramento Bee newspaper, has published a significant opinion piece offering a good summary of recent court budget cuts. He notes that “… on paper, the nation’s largest system of courts looked like a winner, with a 61.3 percent increase in state support… however, it was misleading since the boost basically restored a one-time cut in spending from the previous year, but left intact a $600 million-plus reduction from earlier years.”
He also pointed out that “the budget continued to tap into local courts’ financial reserves [and] in brief, the budget did little to relieve the severe cutbacks in trial court operations that have been imposed in recent years, and thus did little to heal the sharp division within the state’s judiciary — judge vs. judge — over how the pain has been allocated”
Walters piece is bound to get some pass-along traffic in the justice community, in part because it explains that “the Alliance of California Judges, a rebel group, has charged that the state’s judicial bureaucracy has been spending too much money on itself, on a grandiose courthouse construction program and on a statewide case management computer system that proved to be inoperative, leaving trial courts starved for money.
“The organization, teaming with court employee unions, has made some headway in seeking more independence for trial courts, despite opposition from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the rest of the judicial establishment. The Cantil-Sakauye faction has argued that the courts’ problem is not how the money is distributed, but insufficient overall financing. And now it is muscling up to press that argument on the governor and the Legislature by creating its own advocacy organization called the Foundation for Democracy and Justice.
It will be finding itself not only jousting with the Alliance of California Judges but with every other budget stakeholder. The budget is a zero-sum game and every win for one group is a loss for another.”
It’s a good “clip-and-copy” piece for anyone hoping to explain the situation facing California’s justice system. And his work will no doubt be picked up by affiliated state newspapers. See the opinion here.
You can follow Dan Walters on Twitter: @WaltersBee

Locals Out, Corporate In With Courthouse ‘Partnerships’

Anyone worried that the trend toward “public-private” courthouses will have unknown impacts on the justice community was not reassured by the story of Rick Lopez, an iconic coffee-and-sandwiches vendor at the Long Beach courthouse who was left behind by such a partnership. 
The Times explains what happened to Lopez, who entered courthouse vending decades ago on a program to benefit the blind, like this: “… when all the judges, bailiffs and clerks moved down the street to a gleaming new courthouse this fall, Lopez didn’t make the trip. State officials told Lopez there was nothing they could do to keep him in Long Beach, but they could transfer him to another location. The new courthouse was built by a public-private partnership and developers were given the right to lease out the food stalls as they pleased.” Taking his place, “… would be a food court with chains such as Subway and Coffee Bean.”
The other location turned out to be at the Downey courthouse, a two-hour train and bus ride from his home. so he wakes up at 3 a.m., dedicating an hour to prayer before heading out the door, according to the Times story. They have found another vending opportunity at the Compton courthouse, but Lopez has dipped into his savings to make the shift. The Times story is one of a remarkable individual overcoming long odds, not about public-private displacement. It still humanizes the recent moves in our justice system. Read the Times story here.

Top Clerk Says Cuts May Hinder Cost-Saving Efforts

Ironically, recent budget-cutting staff reductions may actually hinder efforts to save money by shifting to e-filing or other programs, according to Contra Costa Presiding Judge Barry Goods. In a story announcing a new head clerk, Judge Good noted that “… given our limited resources, and the uncertainty of next year’s budget situation, it’s a question of balancing the expense of e-filing versus other expenses.”
Judge Goode was quoted in The Courthouse News coverage of Stephen Nash, who was finance director for the Administrative Office of the Courts for four years and is headed back to the Bay Area to become head administrator for the Contra Costa Superior Court.
The report also noted that an upcoming decision on court reserve funds will likely impact how the justice system is operated. Programs like e-filing are going to fall by the wayside, says Judge Goode, if reserves cannot be counted on to help pay costs. Read the Courthouse News report here.

Chief Justice: We’re Basically Denying Justice

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

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

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye continues to make the kind of statements you just know have to eventually fuel legal action:  either that or it’s basically okay to offer one justice system to the rich and another to everyone else.
In an audio interview with with Scott Shafer of The California Report produced by KQED, the chief justice says the state is “basically denying justice” to people by creating “a two-tiered system.” She also tells host Scott Shafer that Gov. Brown is basically overseeing a sea change in California justice, including moving inmates to county jails or onto the streets.
It’s strong stuff and you can listen here.

New Group Will Advocate For California Courts

A new non-profit group has been formed to, in the words of its press release this week, “… increase awareness about the relationship between adequate state funding for the administration of justice – at the state and local level – and the ability to deliver equal access to justice for all.” The “Foundation for Democracy and Justice” also says it plans to educate the public about the branches of government, with particular attention paid to the role of the judiciary.
In the wake of cutting a billion dollars from the courts budget over the last half-decade, many critics of the cuts have noted that some lawmakers have forgotten that the judiciary is an equal branch of government. The new organization’s initial membership seems to include fairly prominent civic leaders and some high-profile attorneys. 
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and state Attorney General Kamala Harris were announced as “honorary directors” of the group. The Sacramento Bee has a story here.

Gov. Brown Vetoes Limits On Court Outsourcing


In a move bound to be greeted as anti-labor by union leadership, California Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed a bill that would have required any courthouse-job outsourcing to include proof that it would actually save money. In effect, unions representing court workers had argued that outsourcing simply moved public money into private pockets.
In his veto announcement Monday, Gov. Brown said the bill went too far and required “… California’s courts to meet overly-detailed and — in some cases — nearly impossible requirements when entering into or renewing certain contracts.” He also said “flexibility” was part of his decision.
As Courthouse News noted in its coverage, the bill was primarily backed by the California Court Reporters Association and the Service Employees International Union and was considered a response to Placer County Superior Court’s firing of its entire court reporter staff and replacement with private contractors. Read the CN story here.