Court funding: Politics large and small


A few weeks after a big downtown rally against Los Angeles Superior Court reorganization, a middle-aged man who had attended the protest walked into a Starbucks next to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse and ordered an elaborate latte concoction.

“It would be different,” he mused as they prepared the drink, “if the judges were elected.” 

He must have been thinking of federal court, because the Superior Court judges held up as out-of-touch 1 percenters at the protest ARE elected, albeit in the most unheralded races anyone might imagine. That near-total lack of political interest is a key reason that this “special report” is a long-form accounting of what amounts to simple political Darwinism.

It starts with the judicial branch of government relying on the other branches, legislative and executive, for much of its funding. Then when the funding is allocated, a host of forces come into play including an array of constitutional guarantees that dominate the criminal courts.

The money coming to the civil courts has its own pressures, of course, and well-heeled lobbying groups can make sure their access is preserved. This pecking order naturally favors anyone with a strong voice in Sacramento, but it also favors high-profile government court functions.

The low man on this particular totem pole, with weak showings in both political clout and visibility, is often the ho-hum civil courts that do the grunt work of civil society: small claims and “eviction” courts, but also the family law judges and traffic courts and probate courts.

It’s a long list.

As the politics and priorities play out, that is increasingly where the rubber meets the road. “These are crisis issues,” explained California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the state’s top court administrator, in a published report. She then cited domestic violence, landlord-tenant matters and child custody cases as impacted by the situation.

“Everyone expects courts to be there when they need them. When you need us, you need us desperately and immediately,” she said, noting that “most of those in family court represent themselves,” she said, “and they need help filling out required paperwork. But the helpers are often no longer there.”

David S. Wesley, presiding judge of the L.A. County Superior Court, told The Los Angeles Times that the court cutbacks impact many. “It affects victims, it affects defendants, it affects lawyers, it affects police departments, it affects families, it affects businesses, it affects the rich and the poor,” he told the paper, which added that the judge laments the cost-cutting plan but says state budget cuts leave no other option.

But Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, speaking at a street protest in March, called the court reorganization plan “outrageous” and said that “the unbalanced scales of justice are being further weighted against low-income and disabled people.” 

And those protestors did not blame state budget officials, but instead blasted judges for creating their response without a public process that might have lessened negative impacts. If that seems political, then it will have to replace a history of apathy. “How many people know anything else about the judicial candidates?” said Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A., in a Times story that tried to educate on the judicial election. “How do you know they’re doing a good job?”

It works like this: The majority of the state’s 1,600 Superior Court judges get appointed by whomever is governor when the seat becomes vacant. But any of those “elected” judges appear on the ballot only if they face a challenger when their term is finished; most do not.

Trial judges earn a base salary of $178,789 and serve for six years. So last November when Los Angeles County voters went to the polls there were only six judicial races, and three of those involved sitting jurists. To keep things dull, there are fairly strict ethics rules on what candidates can say, and as the Times noted that means “… mostly stripping the races of the sort of controversy that makes voters take notice.”

There’s little available coverage outside trade publications, but the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, a legal newspaper, does the work of covering the election and making often candid endorsements, even going on public radio to discuss candidates last November. Of one judicial candidate, the paper said “She is unworthy of government office. We would be delighted to see her replaced by an able and ethical challenger…”

Yet the opponent, the paper warned, was “…incapable of functioning as a judicial officer.” The politics of judges is such that the tools of influence are group mailers and a key strategy is how you identify yourself on the ballot. One famous punk rock musician sued when he was not allowed to self-identify as a volunteer judge. Election watchers said a trend this year was to highlight opponents with “foreign sounding names.”

It is hardly the stuff of street marches and populist slogans. But then, nobody has conducted mock trials with trial judges represented by “Mr. One Percent” in top hat and faux evening wear before, either. It may be that the next round of judicial races may have what the Times said is missing: “The sort of controversy that makes voters take notice.”