Prop. 8 Lawyer Addressing State v. Fed Court Jurisdictions

Remember Charles Cooper, the big-time Washington attorney who argued against same-sex marriage when California’s Prop. 8 went before the U.S. Supreme Court? Well, he is a longtime states-right advocate who is now making a case for moving some lawsuits out of state courts and into federal courts. Our sister website, the National Courts Monitor, has original reporting from Randy Wyrick, a Colorado-based journalist and NCM contributing editor.
Read it here.


Attorney-Author Marks BP-Spill Anniversary With Dire Assessment

An environmental attorney from New Orleans has marked this week’s 5-year anniversary of the huge BP with a truly dire assessment of regulatory inaction, warning in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that the region not only remains at risk, but the “cure” of using dispersant may have been worse than the oil itself.
Stuart H. Smith, a high-profile plaintiff’s attorney who turned blogger then author in the wake of the BP disaster, says President Obama said the right things “… but Congress — controlled by Republican lawmakers indebted to their Big Oil campaign contributors — still has not enacted the offshore-drilling safety measures recommended by the president’s Oil Spill Commission. It has not given strong regulatory powers to the agency that replaced the scandal-scarred Minerals Management Service. And it has not raised the ridiculously low cap of $75 million for corporate liability on major spills.”
Smith offers this even more unsettling take on the half-decade: “… on the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon accident, workers continue to clean up tar balls and giant tar mats of weathered BP oil along beaches from Louisiana to Florida. Black crude still clogs the edges of our ever-shrinking wetlands. A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation chronicled significant health damage to some 20 species of marine plants and birds, while people who took part in 2010 cleanup efforts struggle with headaches, nausea and other symptoms.”
He contends that “lax government standards for highly toxic dispersants are yet another problem” and that a “string of scientific studies has suggested that exposure to Corexit [the dispersant famously used in bulk during the BP spill] may have been more damaging to the health of cleanup workers and marine life than the initial exposure to spilled oil.”
Meanwhile, of course, the civil lawsuits continue to have billions of dollars at stake. Check out the excellent Smith blog, with links to his book “Crude Justice” here:

POLITICO Looks Into Judicial Appointment Backlog

The POLITICO website it taking a look at why the U.S. Senate is allowing a backup on federal appointments, including filling jobs for emergency judges. The report comes after a critical report documented serious delays in civil justice cases, as reported here in the Wall Street Journal.

That WSJ report quoted a seated federal judge in California saying of civil court delays that “it is not justice. We know it.”

Alarmingly, POLITICO says it might be political payback for the so-called “nuclear option” of last year that forced some appointments through to a vote despite the long-standing tradition of needing 60 of 100 votes to move a nomination to a full vote. Reports POLITICO of the GOP-controlled Senate, “… Republicans don’t pinpoint one reason for the major logjam at the judicial level, which has infuriated outside groups intent on seeing the Senate fill 23 judicial emergencies across the nation’s courts. Some argue that Senate Republicans are still getting up and running, while others say the delay is retribution for Democrats’ power play with the nuclear option.”

Read the POLITICO report here.

Arbitration At Issue In Key California High Court Cases

The nation’s largest state is being watched closely as it tackles on of the largest class-action issues: arbitration. In recent years, large companies have been able to shield themselves from a variety of lawsuits by having customers and vendors agree to settle differences outside the courts, which are seen as being much more favorable to plaintiffs.
Now the Recorder offers an excellent overview of the issue nationally and notes that “… in California, plaintiffs lawyers find a measure of hope in the push and pull between the pro-arbitration U.S. Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court, which takes a more skeptical view. Earlier this month the state Supreme Court agreed to review in McGill v. Citibank whether consumers seeking injunctive relief under California law can be forced into arbitration. In May the justices will hear arguments in Sanchez v. Valencia Holding, and potentially lay out new grounds by which courts can reject unfair or one-sided arbitration agreements.”

WSJ Documents Delay, Crisis In Federal Civil Courts

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that civil suits are piling up in the nation’s federal courts, leading to multiple-year delays in cases involving civil rights, personal injury and disputes over Social Security benefits. The Journal’s Joe Palazzolo notes that “… more than 330,000 such cases were pending as of last October—a record—up nearly 20% since 2004, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The number of cases awaiting resolution for three years or more exceeded 30,000 for the fifth time in the past decade.”
Palazzolo singles out the federal court for California’s Eastern District as having  “a particularly deep backlog,” in part because the number of cases filed per judge, 974 last year, is almost twice the national average. More than 14% of civil cases in that district have been pending for three years or more.
A key quote from a California judge: “Over the years I’ve received several letters from people indicating, ‘Even if I win this case now, my business has failed because of the delay. How is this justice? [and] the simple answer, which I cannot give them, is this: It is not justice. We know it.”
It will surprise few that the challenge boils down to politics. Read the WSJ story here.

WSJ Story Notes Civil Gideon Trend

The Wall Street Journal is taking notice of momentum for a “civil Gideon” approach to lawsuits involving life-changing decisions, like foreclosure or family custody. The WSJ reports that the newly approved state budget “… allocated $85 million for indigent civil legal services at the request of the state judiciary, an increase of $15 million from the previous fiscal year.”
And in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio recommended in his preliminary budget proposal spending $36 million on free legal services in housing court, which would bring the city’s total spending on civil legal services up to about $50 million.
By way of background, the deep-dive WSJ story noted that the trend has a history of success and “… in 2009, California passed the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act, which created several pilot programs, supported by court fees, free legal counsel in civil cases. In its third year, the program has succeeded despite a modest $8 million annual budget, its coordinators say. More than 15,000 people have been served so far, most in eviction cases.
“One of the big takeaways is that attorneys help settle cases,” said Bonnie Hough, managing attorney for California’s Judicial Council. Read the story here: New York Officials Push Right to Counsel in Civil Cases

New Report Laments San Bernardino Court Situation

Even in a state where court budget shortfalls have created years-long waits for civil trials and closed more than 50 courthouses, the situation in San Bernardino County remains particularly harsh. Now a new report, just in time for state budget season, is detailing just how harsh.
The Daily Press in Victorville reports that, “… for starters, the county is facing a $62.7 million funding gap for 2015, meaning that its missing 46 percent of the $137.8 million that was calculated to be needed per workload-based allocation, according to a report March 25 by the state’s Judicial Branch.”
The report also notes that “… since fiscal year 2007, San Bernardino County courthouses in Twin Peaks, Redlands, Chino, Needles and Big Bear have closed. A courtroom in Joshua Tree was also shuttered in fiscal year 2007.”
It’s a solid reminder that years of cuts have left many judicial systems in shambles. Read about one of those systems here.

Buzz Over NY ‘Silver Case’ Political Scandal

The asbestos litigation industry is buzzing over how the arrest of a major New York politician might – or might not – create a storyline for other high-volume “magnet” communities, says Courts Monitor Publisher Sara Warner in a new Huffington Post column. Her report includes observations from a recent Beverly Hills industry conference on “cutting edge” issues.

Civil Court Rationing Reaches Vermont

You can add Vermont to the list of states feeling the rationing pinch for court budgets, and like California two years ago and the rest of the country over time the civil courts are feeling the most pressure. The Vermont Association of Justice, a stakeholder group, wrote a letter to lawmakers outlining the challenge and noting that”… while abuse and other cases take priority, civil cases remain unresolved. Under the current conditions, attorneys warn clients that it will likely take 18 to 26 months before a judge hears a two-day civil jury trial. It may take as long as four months to schedule a three-hour-long case.”

A courts advocate offered this example: If an injured person is pursuing a case against a national insurance company, the insurance company can afford to wait. The injured person, however, is more likely to need the money sooner to pay for medical bills or other expenses. Instead of waiting for a court time, the insured person may agree to settle for less than their claim is worth.

Meanwhile, civil court delays are expected to get worse.

Read more here.