Judicial Reporter Offers Stark 2013 Recap

For anyone dealing with rationed justice in 2013, it felt like a nearly constant barrage of bad news. Now Bill Girdner at The Courthouse News offers a year-in-review piece that quickly reminds us why – because it was a barrage of bad news. The story begins with “… it was a news-filled year for the courts in California, as they survived huge budget cuts and walked backwards on transparency and slightly forward on reform as the Legislature told them to open a warren of closed committees.”

He notes the budget cutting and that it was considered a “reprieve” when the governor decided not to cut the budget even more. He even recalls when In “… an old scandal returned as the council over-rode objections from judges and allowed telecommutingby the highly paid mandarins of the Administrative Office of the Courts… in a companion decision, the council voted to take a look at the salaries of those same bureaucrats but later decided that the inquiry should be conducted by the bureaucrats themselves. As the year winds down, the inquiry seems to have stalled.”

And maybe this slipped by in the holiday rush, but Girdner recalls that “… in December, the council elevated its technology committee to the status of internal committee, igniting a blast from judges who said the leaders of the tech committee and its task force had “proven themselves incompetent” and should be replaced.”

In terms of the legal community, it reads less like the summary of a year-in-review and more like an indictment. See the story here.

(Program Note: The CCM will not update tomorrow as we observe the New Year’s holiday)

Superior Courts, And Facilities, Ranked On Yelp? Yep

If it’s good enough for restaurants and car repairs, it’s good enough for the justice system. The consumer-review site Yelp! is becoming a place to review courts and the facilities that house them. As you might suspect, any survey involves people venting a bit about long lines and less-than-perfect outcomes, but some courts get (perhaps) surprisingly high ratings and some of the insights would be helpful to those about to visit the courts – like that some courthouses are less busy on Thursday, or when specific traffic court workers are out for lunch.
An example of relatively glowing reviews is the Los Angeles County Superior Court at Chatsworth in the northwestern San Fernando Valley. With more than two dozen reviews it achieves a three-of-five star rating. Those panning the facility echoed problems from across the system: long lines. A typical complaint from Chatsworth, was “… I tried for several hours yesterday afternoon — and for another half hour this morning — to simply reserve a court date.  All total, that process took approximately three hours.” 
But they love their free parking! You can find specific courts by searching Yelp, and the Chatsworth comments are here.

‘Top Hellhole’ Ranking Sparks Some Debate

There’s not much balance in most online coverage of California’s latest “Judicial Hellhole” ranking, but there’s a good exception at the Law360 website. Their report notes that the ranking by the American Tort Reform Association doesn’t tell “the whole story,” but offers strong comments from people on both sides of the debate.
For example, Law360 writes that “… the report focuses too heavily on a minority of abusive cases, according to Brian Kabateck,” who is identified as a former president of the Consumer Attorneys of California. The quote continues that “… this report is coming from a coalition of corporations and big businesses and insurance companies. They are taking a very small number of clearly abusive lawsuits, and they are trying to use that as a smoke screen to shield themselves from liability for their bad actions and their injurious conduct directed at Californians.”
But other experts point out that other states have taken measures to clear up clogged court systems and California could learn a thing or two from their experiences. William Oxley, a partner at one of the state’s larger firms who is identified as an attorney “… who defends companies in asbestos cases and other product liability and mass tort cases” said he agreed that California is a more plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction, and thought the Legislature and the California Supreme Court need to take action to balance the playing field.
We do not typically link to paid websites, but this one offers free access for seven days with registration. So here’s the link.

Democrat Budget Blueprint Ignores Court Crisis

We’ve been noting that the early plans for our next state budget do not exactly place civil courts funding in the “crisis” category. Indeed, the courts in general are, at best, being placed on the back-burner – even the criminal courts which have a higher political profile than civil justice. The latest example is the recently released “budget blueprint” released by the Democratic Caucus of the state assembly.
In an editorial, the Los Angeles Times described the document thus: “Top Assembly Democrats have revealed what they’d like to do with billions of dollars in extra tax revenue that the state is projected to receive, and their top priorities were reassuring: expanding the reserve fund and paying down the debts that Sacramento accumulated over the last decade. Their budget blueprint also calls for a lot of new spending on education and anti-poverty programs, however.”
The most passionate appeal for any justice-related funding in the “blueprint” comes amid plans to reduce spending on prison housing. There, the “collaborative justice” efforts get some attention, but that’s hardly noting a billion dollars of court cuts over the past five years. Certainly, most of the issues getting attention are worthy – yet you have to wonder how long we can expect courthouse-related labor unions and others to sit by while the Democrats ignore their concerns. 
Read the Times editorial here.
Find the Blueprint here.

Paper Calls For More Superior Court Judges

Program NOTE: No post on Christmas Day! Happy Holidays to all!

A major Inland Empire newspaper is calling for increased funding for civil court judges and staff in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which have the worst judicial shortfall in California – the only area in worse shape than Los Angels County, according to state research. The Press-Enterprise, in an editorial, says that the California Judicial Council has determined that “… Riverside County, for example, has 76 judges, but needs 138. San Bernardino County has 84 judges, but should have 156. So Riverside County is 62 judges short, while San Bernardino County needs another 82 judges. Those are the worst numbers in the state; the next largest gap is in Los Angeles County, which should have another 41 judges.”
The newspaper says that lawmakers should use use “a small share” of a projected budget surplus to address the problem adding that funding a new judge also means funding related support staff. The paper noted that “… a new judgeship costs about $1.65 million the first year, and $909,000 annually in subsequent years — figures which include money for additional court staffing that judges need, such as clerks, secretaries and security.”
We can expect more demands for judicial improvements as word circulates of a likely state budget surplus, yet early budget documents have not indicated any anticipated increases. See more here.

Civil Courts Funding Gets No ‘Governing’ Priority

It’s only one of the nation’s end-of-year stories, but a “Top 10 Issues” list by Governing magazine, which caters to the policy setters nationally, lets us know where the civil courts funding and capacity issue stands for 2014: Nada, zilch, zero. Not only is it not top 10, but it doesn’t even make the half-dozen “watch” issues.
This is a list that includes state policy on drones and self-driving automobiles. That’s right, at least several reporters looking across the national landscape and figured that regulation of self-driving cars, which might be available to consumers by the end of the decade, are a pressing issue. And they noted civil courts capacity not at all… so there’s work to do there. Issues that did make the list include the usual: Immigration, pension reform and minimum wage regulation that’s going nowhere on the federal agenda, at least according to Governing.

CCM Publisher Describes Civil ‘Hellholes’

Sara Warner, publisher of the California Courts Monitor, finds herself agreeing with a business-focused group about the hellishness of state civil courts, yet for somewhat different reasons. Find out what she things a “real hellhole” looks like in our era of rationed justice:  Verdict Is In: California Courts Hellish.

More Judges, Court Staff Eyed, If There’s More Money

Nobody is saying there will be funding to expand California’s court capacity, but the California Judicial Council has voted that some of any new money will go to provide new judges in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Both communities have been identified as among the state’s very worst in terms of justice access and have, of course, been hard-hit by the half-decade of court budget cutting
The Press-Enterprise newspaper has a good story on the decision by the Judicial Council, the courts administrative branch, and noting that lines outside courthouses are going around the block. The newspaper reports that “…additionally, several years of statewide budget cuts resulted in hundreds of staff reductions for both courts, causing shuttering or reduction of services at courthouses, and redirecting the type of cases some courts can handle… [the] cases affected by the pressure of too few judges include civil and family law courts, where decisions are made about critical issues of custody and child support.

The report cites a significant “new assessment” approved in 2012 that changed the official “judicial needs” for several counties, and Contra Costa County gave up a promised judicial position because of Riverside County’s shortage. The paper also recalls that money-dependent legislation “… originally provided for 150 new judges statewide, in three rollouts of 50 judges each. The first was completed, but the next two were stalled as state funds for the courts were severely cut in the succeeding years… the 2012 assessment says Riverside County has 76 judges, but needs 138. San Bernardino County has 84, but needs 156.

The next-biggest judicial shortage is in Los Angeles County, which needs 41. The P-E also breaks down the money: “Funding for a judgeship includes not just the judge’s salary but also money for court room personnel such as clerks, secretaries and sheriff’s deputies for security. A new judicial position is estimated to cost $1.65 million for the first year, which usually involves establishment of chambers and other one-time costs, and about $909,000 per year thereafter. A beginning judge’s annual salary is $181,292.”


Early Budget Advice: No More Cash For Courts

Anyone hoping the next state budget surplus might reverse years of court funding cuts might be disappointed with early advice being offered to lawmakers. The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), the nonpartisan office which provides fiscal and policy information and advice to the Legislature” is setting the anticipated courts increase at zero.
The LAO fall forecast and report documents a solid financial footing, saying that “the state’s budgetary condition is stronger than at any time in the past decade. The state’s structural deficit—in which ongoing spending commitments were greater than projected revenues—is no more.” The report also says that “… the Legislature will make decisions about the state’s 2014–15 budget in the coming months… assuming no change to current law and policy, we project that the state would have a $5.6 billion General Fund reserve at the end of the 2014–15 fiscal year.” 
Despite those billions, the LAO anticipates no budget increase for courts, reporting that while lawmakers “… could decide to provide additional General Fund support in the future to offset [court[ reductions” the actual forecast “assumes that General Fund spending on the judicial branch will remain roughly flat at about $1.2 billion over the forecast period.” 
This is not a trivial group. The LAO reports directly to the 16-member state Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC). The LAO website says the office currently has a staff of 43 analysts and approximately 13 support staff. Thus, they are the early-early drafters of what will become the state budget discussion. Check out how taxpayer money might be spent in the coming years here.

California Tops Controversial Civil ‘Hellhole” List

Heralded by pro-business “tort reform” groups and blasted by left-leaning organizations, an annual “Judicial Hellholes” ranking is out today and California tops the list. The list has been compiled for the past decade as a project of the American Tort Reform Association, or ATRA, which campaigns on behalf of business interests; while widely known and frequently cited among the nation’s civil litigation community, it typically receives little mainstream media attention.
The tort-reform side of the argument is stated fairly well by Daniel Fisher at Forbes who writes: “News flash: Madison, County, Ill. is no longer the nation’s worst place for corporations to find themselves in court. California took top honors in the American Tort Reform’s annual “Judicial Hellholes” list, an unashamedly pro-defendant look at the nation’s judicial system. The Golden State won for the welcoming stance its courts take toward consumer class actions – particularly against food companies – and rampant lawsuits targeting small businesses over disability-access rules.” 
But the left-leaning Media Matters blog report dismisses the report, writing that it “… annually lists states that have court systems ATRA [the American Tort Reform Association] considers to be the most ‘unfair and unbalanced’ to defendants in the civil justice system, has been previously discredited for having no valid methodology and relying on unverified anecdotes drawn from press accounts. The Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School describes the ATRA’s members as being ‘largely Fortune 500 companies with a direct financial stake in restricting lawsuits.’ It is unsurprising, therefore, that the ‘Hellholes’ reports regularly feature jurisdictions that corporate defendants feel are not favorable to their interests. In fact, the report describes its methodology as largely based on vaguely described ‘feedback’ from ATRA members.”
The report gained coverage in the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, which we should note are considered much more conservative than the newspaper’s news sections. So it’s worth noting that the report is widely seen by business leaders and even critics acknowledge that, at minimum, it indicates what “largely Fortune 500 companies” think about the state.
You can see the entire report and much more, including a cool flaming gavel logo here.
Here’s a good argument totally debunking the study from Sergio Munoz at Media Matters.
The Forbes piece written by staffer Daniel Fisher that explains why the report matters is here.
Follow us on Twitter @CACourtsMonitor