Texas Court Hearing Will Address Decades-Old Asbestos Testimony

A Texas reporter is trying to unearth asbestos-related testimony from nearly 20 years ago that might shed light on some more recent activity. Specifically, the reporter feels a deposition, apparently sealed for all this time, might shed light on a famous witness-coaching memo that came to light during the landmark Garlock bankruptcy case two years ago. A hearing is set for today (Jan. 31) in a downtown Austin, Tx., courtroom.

We will update the results, which are not expected to be immediate. Meanwhile, the case has attracted the attention of tort-reform organizations and even the center-right Tucker Carlson website Daily Caller, which published a scorched earth article on the even of the hearing. The reporter is also a contributor to the Paul Johnson Films documentary “UnSettled: Inside the Strange World of Asbestos Lawsuits” and did original reporting at the Dallas Observer that appeared in the film. Asbestos litigation is America’s longest-running tort litigation and a frequent target of civil lawsuit “reform” groups, typically backed by business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Read the Daily Caller opinion piece, from a regular contributor but not a news staff writer, here.

California budget raid jeopardizes Modesto courthouse construction funding

A decision by California lawmakers to raid $1.4 billion from the judicial system during the budget crisis is having a direct impact on a $267 million courthouse construction project in Modesto, according to the ModBee. With 23 courthouse construction projects in the works across the state, the budget raid could have implications well beyond the city borders.

As budgets have become constrained, courthouses have closed, forcing existing courthouses to renovate to accommodate the influx of new cases. Brandi Christensen, facilities support service manager for Stanislaus County Superior Court told the Bee, “We don’t have an inch to move. Our courtrooms are packed every day.”

In addition to lack of space, many courthouses have fallen into deep disrepair from age. In the case of the Modesto courthouse, the Bee reports, “The most modern part of the current courthouse — which houses the courtrooms — was built in 1960. The other half of the courthouse was built in 1871 and remodeled in 1939. The courthouse has no holding cells for inmates, who are kept in jury rooms before their court appearances.”

The Judicial Council of California’s Court Facilities Advisory Committee met on June 28th in San Francisco to go over courthouse construction funding, and found it is coming up short. Very short. The Council directed the staff to develop funding recommendations, in concert with  the Department of Finance, in advance of their next meeting August 4th.

We’ll continue to follow the story, and you can get caught up with full details at the full Modesto Bee article here.

Florida Court District Says Divorce Hearing Can Take A Year

Courts nationwide are facing serious rationing, but a Tampa-area regional justice system is offering some details of its crisis. The info came as county commissioners are debating new facilities. But the area’s chief judge says that won’t help much because “… we can build additional courtrooms but nothing’s going to happen unless we have more judges to oversee them… we haven’t had a new judge in 10 years. Get the (state) Legislature to give us more judges.”

At issue is Florida’s 6th Judicial Circuit, which serves fast-goring Pasco and Pinellas counties The Tampa Bay Tribune explained that the district is “Florida’s third-largest court system. It has 69 judges to oversee all criminal, civil, appellate, family, traffic and small claims court cases. There are seven county court judges and 13 circuit judges assigned to handle cases at the New Port Richey and Dade City courthouses. In 2013 — the most recent figures available — those 20 Pasco County judges handled 24,069 circuit court cases and 41,733 county court cases. And the caseload keeps growing.”

One judge told county officials that it takes a year just to get a hearing on a divorce case

See more at the Tampa Tribune. 

Justice Scalia Was Leader In Civil Justice Decisions

Photo Credit: The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Saturday in Washington, DC, following the announcement of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. NPR report, 2/15/16

Photo Credit: The U.S. Supreme Court is seen on Saturday in Washington, DC, following the announcement of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
NPR report, 2/15/16

The political and criminal-law fallout from the sudden death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is, of course, being widely discussed as President Obama prepares to nominate a successor. But NPR has done a good job at detailing a half-dozen cases that really illustrate how much Justice Scalia sculpted the modern civil litigation landscape.

For example, remember the huge Wal-Mart lawsuit over treatment of female workers? NPR backgrounded the case: “The issue before the Supreme Court was whether female employees as a group could be certified as a single class, suing Wal-Mart at a single trial. Lawyers for the women introduced evidence showing that female employees held two-thirds of the lowest-level hourly jobs at Wal-Mart, but only one-third of the management jobs, and that women overall were paid on average $1.16 per hour less than men in the same jobs, though the women had more seniority and higher performance ratings.”

Scalia was widely noted as a reason Wal-Mart prevailed in its appeal to the high court. Other cases of illustration, like Hobby Lobby and Citizen’s United, can be found here: 6 Major Supreme Court Cases That Would Have Been Different Without Scalia

9th Circuit Revives Challenge To Odd California Liquor Law

The federal Ninth Circuit Court has revived a challenge to California’s law against compensating alcohol retailers for advertising products, saying that recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions conflict with that regulation. The lawsuit at issue involves Retail Digital Network challenging the law under First Amendment arguments. The company installs liquid-crystal displays in retail stores and then enters into contracts with people wanting to advertise on those displays. That activity is outlawed by the California law, one of the nation’s strongest.
Read more from the Courthouse News Service here.

State Seeks Millions In Valley Methane Gas Leak

The Courthouse News is reporting that state officials on Tuesday “sued SoCalGas for $440,000 per day in fines for its negligent response to the massive methane gas leak that has displaced thousands of people in the San Fernando Valley.” The massive gas leak has forced thousands of people out of their homes and the gas company has offered temporary relocation to many, but not all, affected families. The leak has been going since last October and it remains unclear when it might end. At that rate of fines, the gas company would already owe more than $40 million.
The CN explains that “the new lawsuit follows an independent panel’s approval on Saturday of the air district’s request for a stipulated order of abatement. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency this month and the state Senate introduced a bill calling for an immediate moratorium on any new injections of natural gas and use of aging wells at the facility.”

Maine Hotel Case Illustrates Civil Justice Rationing

It seems a routine case: A town planning board approves a new Hampton Hotel but a resident thinks it was done improperly and failed to properly address questions like how tall the buildings would be. But, as with many such “civil referee” cases around the country, this one illustrates the rising problem of civil justice rationing. That’s because the community, Kittery on the coast of Maine, has not heard civil lawsuits for months because the caseload has been consumed by criminal cases.
Brian Early, writing in the Fosters.com newspaper site, quotes Kittery Town Attorney Duncan McEachern saying that York County is “about a judge-and-a-half short, so the priority is processing criminal cases and this is civil.” The report adds that “… a clerk at the York County Superior Court in Alfred said Friday the court has not heard civil cases since June [2015], and the next opening to hear civil cases will be during the first week in March. What cases will be heard will not be decided until next month. If the case is not heard in March, it is not clear when it will be.”
Read about the rationing here.

California Leads Way On Allowing ‘Organic’ Label Lawsuits

More states are expected to allow mislabeling lawsuits involving products labeled “organic” in the wake of a California Supreme Court decision. The Golden State’s unanimous ruling, explains the Associated Press, “… overturned a lower court decision that barred such suits on the grounds that they were superseded by federal law.”

The report in Salon.com offered some background: Congress wanted only state and federal officials to police organic food violations in order to create a national standard for organic foods, a division of the 2nd District Court of Appeal decided in 2013. But the state Supreme Court said allowing consumer lawsuits would further congressional goals of curtailing fraud and ensuring consumers can rely on organic labels. Experts cited in the report say other states will be expected to follow.

SCOTUS Chief Justice Praises New Rules

In his annual state of the courts address, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts last week said that civil actions are sometimes “too expensive, time consuming, and contentious” and praised new rules aiming to streamline evidence discovery and encourage judges to help manage cases. That was among a spate of new rules approved Dec. 1 and going into effect this month.
One of the changes is that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has posted revised forms on its website that can be used by people seeking to represent themselves in federal civil cases. While the overall federal judges’ caseload is down a bit from last year, the chief justice called for more assistance and less expensive process.
See the NBC report on the judge’s annual comments here: New Rules Will Streamline Federal Cases: Chief Justice

Private Church Camps Prepare To House ‘Border Kids’

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that “…. operators of two private camps in Ellis and Rockwall counties are scrambling to get ready for the arrival of at least 800 young immigrants from Central America, part of a recent surge crossing illegally into the U.S. from Mexico.”
Citing government sources, the paper says that about 300 immigrants — ages 12 to 18 — are expected to arrive at Sabine Creek Ranch next week for temporary shelter, and at least 500 children age 17 and under will stay at Lakeview Camp and Retreat Center near Waxahachie and could get there as early as Friday, officials in Ellis County said. At least one camp is run by a religious group.
Immigration detainment, especially of children, has been a controversial issue for months since an inflx of “Border Kids” began showing up on the U.S. border. Typically, they are not “caught” but turn themselves in and request asylum.  Read more here.