Looking for ‘literature,’ finding civic revolt

By Sara Warner, from CCM Special Report

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After some time Back East, I was moving back to California where I’ve lived nearly all of the past 17 years. When talk turned to a courts website last year, our pretensions were mostly literary: we wanted www.californiacourtsmonitor.com to celebrate “the writing” about justice, like that you get from Associated Press Special Correspondent Linda Deutsch or maybe even less known voices like James Preston Allen, the publisher of San Pedro’s “Random LengthNews.” (Not, by the way, that Mr. Allen is likely to care all that much.)

It seemed logical enough. It was a good project that meshed nicely with my day job as development director for a non-profit legal foundation. Also, I grew up with the Law (capital “L” in our house). My grandfather was a famous lawyer and my grand uncle was a Federal Court judge. Who knew we would find a civil courts system in what amounts to full-on revolt?






Others explain the issues better than I can, and we include them on the site daily. But let me explain why we’re shifting the website to focus on the civil courts crisis. It seems clear that the justice system, which is meant to protect its citizens by law, has become the equivalent of a mature company that has lost its ability to innovate, and just like private sector companies, this can ultimately lead to its death.

Of course, the courts have protection from the forces of the free markets as the services they are meant to provide are “priceless” due to protection of the constitution. But the courts also have a duty to the public to provide timely, efficient, and cost effective services to their constituency in return. When the courts fail, due to their natural protections and insularity to financial consequences, it is no less than a crime to our justice system. We need voices that advocate a radical overhaul of practices that encourage waste, fraud, and abuse that divert resources from where the constitution obliges them to be, in
the hands of the people.

When it comes to the justice system, we can’t trade an index or measure performance by earnings or traditional business metrics. Therefore, we have a fiduciary duty to make sure the courts are held accountable in the court of public opinion. We have not done that.

When will we begin to hold judges accountable for their decisions? And wasn’t it Jefferson who observed “The government you elect is government you deserve?” That is what we’re getting.

Hopefully we have quoted enough, online and in the pages of our special print report, to make a case for those of us not “insiders” of the system. God knows we’ve read through enough reports and media stories, and the time seems right because in recent months lawsuits and street marches have replaced behind-the scenes committee meetings.

We should note that some people simply blame poor judicial administration and when street protesters held a “mock trial” they did not target state budgets but instead the judges themselves. Advocates for low-income and handicapped citizens are outraged at a proposed Los Angeles County Superior Court reorganization, arguing that the system will still work for deep-pocketed participants but not for others.

Certainly, it’s a statewide crisis, and somebody is going to get hurt: domestic violence restraining orders in at least 11 county courts do not get same-day action, according to the Trial Court Presiding Judges Committee. Services for self-help cases, long a last resort for anyone with a civil complaint and little cash, have been cut to the point of losing much of their relevancy.

Really? Four hours wait to pay a traffic ticket in San Francisco? Three hours just to fi le a lawsuit? A 175-mile drive to the courthouse? Five hours on the L.A. transit system to explain why the landlord should not evict you?

So we have shifted the California Courts Monitor to cover what many see as a rationing of civil justice. My friends who have done this before assure me this is why we call it a “beta site.” But to this debate I would add one point from the perspective of a non-profit legal group: What happens to the deterrent effects once courts become really clogged? In other words, people up to no good now have at least a vague notion that somebody might sue them and collect. What if that day in court is commonly known to be four, five or six years from now? “See you in court” should not mean “in half a decade.” 

After years working in the financial industry, I have learned a lot about how deals work and could bore you to tears on the subject of “futures.” But those areas of law are guided and regulated through free markets, whereas local level civil matters and services are not. Trust me that a real civil system is vital to everyone (well, nearly everyone) playing nice. I also believe California is the best state in the Union, and I feel we are obligated to serve as an example to other states. We are the most innovative, free-thinking, trendsetting state and somehow we are faced with the prospect of a Third World civil justice system?

Or not. Certainly, we have noticed that the media is heating up, and our new website slogan offers “a daily ration” of the rationing issue.