Court Cuts Are ‘Back To The Future’ For Delays

A relatively older post (meaning pre-2013 state budget) by a West Hollywood attorney has been making the rounds (at least our rounds) because it notes that the looming delays in California’s civil courts are actually a return to the bad old days.
David S. White begins his history lesson by noting that “… thirty-six years ago, when I began practicing law in the Los Angeles Superior Court system, the backlog of cases was so immense that you had to wait five years to get to trial. A Master Calendar Department would then put the lawyers on Beepers (like some restaurants today use), and, when your Beeper buzzed you, it was time to gather up your boxes of documents and your witnesses, and come to the courtroom designated for your trial – if that courtroom was not already backed up, trying one or more cases.”
He then outlines how a “fast track” policy tried to get disputes to trial in a year or less, a goal that Mr. White feels was very nearly attained until the “bubble” of the early 2000’s burst in California real estate, followed soon by the national Great Recession and a Golden State deeply “upside down” financially. 
His post at the Fox & Hounds website offers context, but also a lively comments section on civil tort reforms and the like. He is good at responding. Find the discussion here.

Pushback, Frustration Mounts Against Slow Court Dockets

It will take a bit more time before the most recent civil court budget courts, and their resulting delays, become a routine part of lawsuit strategy. But, already you can see where people seeking their day in court are becoming increasingly frustrated – to the point of one attorney holding press conferences and citing a landmark NBC3 investigative report by Stephen Stock (see previous posts) to make his point.
The Michael Rooney law office, in an apparent Redwood City civil lawsuit between individuals, even issued a press release over a popular distribution network recently and scheduled a press conference on the courthouse steps – just to demand a case get a trial date. In the statement, the budget cuts are noted and the argument is made that people abusing the courts can “…further exploit the Courts’ apparent inability to handle cases by using every trick to delay their victims’ right to justice, while making themselves judgment-proof before a jury renders a judgment against them, once again outsmarting the legal system that they have abused for years.”
The NBC3 report comes into play (and you can bet it will again) by noting “… as San Mateo County Superior Court Presiding Judge Robert Foiles, recently stated in an interview by NBC3 Reporter, Stephen Stock: “justice delayed is justice denied… and we’re delaying justice!”
You can check out the PR Newswire release here.

The ABA Meeting Continues Big-Name Draw

Not that anybody is saying anything new, but at least the big American Bar Association meeting in San Francisco is hosting the biggest names to say the old stuff. Like a Supreme Court Justice coming out strongly in favor of increasing civic education.
The ABA website is doing a good job keeping up with the annual conference via social and traditional postings. It says “…. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy commended the American Bar Association for its efforts to call attention to the nation’s justice system, but he stressed that the ABA must do more with regard to civic education. Kennedy, speaking Saturday night at the Opening Assembly of the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, said the association “must insist that civic education be recommenced and revitalized because freedom is not something that’s on automatic pilot.”
Keep up with the legal elite here.

NPR Posting Story On Rural Courthouse Closing

National Public Radio is reporting nationally on the closing of a rural Fresno County court, including quoting the presiding judge making the case that budgets left no choice. NPR’s Emily Green reports that “… Gary Hoff, presiding judge of Fresno County Superior Court, says he knew closing the courts would mean some people just wouldn’t go to the courts looking for justice, but that the closures were necessary.
“We knew that closing the courts would deny people in outlying jurisdictions the availability of going to a local courthouse to take care of their business,” he says. “I know others have disagreed with our choice, but financially we could not do anything else but close those courts. We have to live within our budget.”
See how NPR documents the dismantling of our justice system here.


Three Large-State Court Leaders Bemoan Funding Cuts

Chief justices from California, New York and Texas joined three federal judges Thursday in bemoaning court funding nationwide. The group was part of an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, participating in a panel discussion called “Are Courts Dying? The Decline of Open and Public Adjudication.” The California chief justice actually said she was “afraid” to see the future, which is true enough but sidesteps the fact that many people are afraid of the present.
The ABA website coverage also noted that the cuts have been going on for years, even though they may have finally bottomed out: “While budget cuts have severely hit the justice systems of the nation’s three most populated states, each top judge offered some encouragement. A study last fall by the National Center for State Courts indicated after four years of constant reductions, funding in most states has stabilized if not increased.”
The Bay City News website reported that “California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she had reluctantly supported some increases in court fees as ‘desperate measures’ in the face of deep funding cuts that have resulted in the closure of 40 courthouses and 77 courtrooms statewide.
The BCN also reports that “… judges also said public access to courts is impaired not only by funding cuts but also by the high cost of lawyers in civil cases and the so-called “outsourcing” of adjudication. Examples of outsourcing, they said, are the use of private judges for those who can afford it and the use of mandatory, closed-door arbitration instead of open courts to resolve consumer disputes. About 8,000 lawyers and guests are attending the ABA meeting, which continues throughTuesday.


Read the Bay City coverage via the San Francisco Appeal here.

See the ABA website daily coverage of the ongoing meeting here.

Courts Begin New System For Rationing Budget

It was just a “drop in the bucket,” according to California’s chief courts fiscal officer, but the restored funding from our recently passed state budget is being allocated under a new formula that creates winners and losers. The San Francisco Appeal website has a good accounting of its local situation, noting that the “increase” actually “… still leaves the superior courts $201 million short of the amount received last year, on top of previous cuts of $214 million.”
The website explains “… the new allocation formula, developed by an advisory committee of judges and court executives, takes account of varying court workloads that may have changed in recent years because of population growth or other factors. The previous formula, used for the past 15 years, was based primarily on the share each superior court had in 1998, the year the state government took over court funding from the individual counties. That approach didn’t keep up with increased court workloads in counties where the population grew faster.”
The $60 million added to the state budget at the last minute is considered “new” spending and will come under the new guidelines.
In the Bay Area, it’s been widely reported that Contra Costa, Monterey, Solano and Sonoma county superior courts will get more funding under the new system than they would have under the old formula. Los Angeles Superior Court is also expected to get a slight increase over what it would have gotten before.

For Raw Court Coverage, Watch ‘Judicial Council Watcher

For anyone seeking a more “raw” and reliably skeptical view of the ongoing trial court budget crisis, a decent place to visit is the “Judicial Council Watch.” They recently noted that the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) wants to “augment their own staff” while many court jobs are being eliminated and many workers laid off. It might also be news to many that the spending debate, which seemed over once the governor signed the budget, still continues.
The website puts it thus: “By way of background, after the Legislature passes the state budget bill and the Governor signs it, entities of state government can present budget change proposals [BCP] to the Department of Finance which request additional funding for programs or projects deemed essential and for which insufficient funding has been appropriated. Sometimes the BCP is approved and other times the Department of Finance might request additional information or simply deny the request altogether. Generally speaking, you can identify an entity’s priorities by reviewing what BCP’s they are submitting.”
The Watch links to a 21-minute audio presentation by the courts Chief Administrative Officer, Curt Soderlund. The site maintains the presentation reflects “the branch’s priorities,” including a “Blue Ribbon Commission.”
To this the website offers some comment: “Seriously? We are at a loss to understand why our branch leadership would use what little political capital they may still have to feather their own nests while ignoring the fact that thousands of trial court employees have already lost their jobs. It is clear, however, that restoring funding for our local court staff did not make the cut on the AOC’s wish-list.”
Talk a longer walk on the courts journalism wild side here.

Prisons Offer Lessons For Courts Rationing

There are lessons for civil justice advocates in the ongoing soap opera over California’s prison overcrowding. One is that the state can and will shift its responsibilities to counties, in this case moving inmates to county jails. Another is that the “miracle” of Gov. Brown’s “balanced budget” hinges on many such moves to effectively de-fund agencies. And yet another is that it may take years and years, but the chickens do come home to roost.
The news is that a U.S. Supreme Court decision pretty much gives the state a late December deadline for meeting the terms of a 2009 ruling by a  special three-judge panel. That panel said that the state’s 33 prisons were too overcrowded to provide prisoners adequate medical and mental health care. The governor has already met much of the court’s demand from what he calls a “realignment program,” which simply shifted low-level offenders from state prisons to county jails.
It’s unclear what, exactly, the state will do. But it’s worth noting that they have already shifted many “low-level” non-violent inmates to the counties. That means those left in prisons are those that did not make the cut for county jails. And yet another lesson for the civil courts, where cutbacks have also impacted the ability of the disabled to attain public services, that the state sometimes responds only when ordered to respond.
As usual, Howard Mintz (@hmintz)at the Mercury News newspaper makes a complex situation easy to understand. Read his article here. 
Follow CCM on Twitter @CACourtsMonitor

Another Newspaper Stands Up For Justice

“… but there is something particularly disturbing about a closed courtroom and what that says about how we govern and how we view access to justice” says the The Record newspaper of San Joaquin County in a new editorial. Along with its strong opinion, the paper also reports that the county’s local court will use an “additional” $1.5 million to re-hire some laid-off court staffers.
But, adds the newspaper, “… the additional money, however, is not enough to reopen shuttered courtrooms in Tracy and Lodi that were closed in April.” And the paper explains why the “additional” money is not really adding anything: “San Joaquin County Superior Court Executive Officer Rosa Junqueiro notes that lawmakers this year cut the courts by $261 million statewide, so adding back in $60 million still means California court funding is off by $201 million.”
Along with updating the local situation, The Record is reminding us that not all the mainstream media is ignoring the justice rationing issue. Read the editorial here.

Drop In Civil Cases Tracks With Budget Cuts

A new report showing a decline in civil cases is sure to fuel debate over cause and effect. Do reduced court hours, long lines, years-long waits for trials and increased fees reduce our tendency to seek justice, or are we just finally getting along better? The Judicial Council creates the state-mandated report annually, but this is the first one to be made public.
The Courthouse News Service, in a story by Maria Dinzeo, says we’ve seen a “steady decline in civil and lesser criminal filings over the last 10 years, coinciding with the decrease in funds for court operations and police departments, according to statistics presented to the state’s Judicial Council.” The CNS adds that “Judges on the council seemed concerned that the filing information published without analysis could be used against the courts, in a time when the judiciary is working to restore funding and educate lawmakers about court workloads.”
“You can see over this 10-year trend a steady increase in statewide filings up to almost an historic point above 10 million filings just before the budget cuts hit the branch. Then you see a decreasing trend over the last several years of ongoing cuts,” says a researcher with the Administrative Office of the Courts.
These are the kinds of numbers that will be used by both sides of the funding debates. Check out the CNS story here.