NYC And Municipal Leadership On Civil Justice

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at her State of the City address. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council as reported in the New York Observer)

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at her State of the City address. (Photo: William Alatriste/NYC Council as reported in the New York Observer)

Despite the welcomed statewide “traffic court amnesty” in California, it remains clear that municipal governments are leading the way in providing civil justice leadership. The latest example comes from the Big Apple, where the city council has voted to create an “Office of Civil Justice” to connect poor people facing housing and other issues with attorneys.

New York Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has dubbed the proposal “the people’s law firm” and said in a press conference that “… limited access to an attorney means limited access to justice.” Ms. Mark-Viverito said today at a press conference before the Council’s vote on the bill. As the NY Observer reported, “… while plaintiffs in criminal cases are guaranteed lawyers, those in civil cases—which can include deportation, child custody and eviction proceedings—are not.”
Read more here.  

Immigration Court Rationing Retains Attention

The “Border Kid” refugee/immigration crisis continues to gain attention, with media coverage moving away from the sheer numbers (nearly 400,000 cases pending, for example) into the human interest stories. A good case in point is a Daily Beast online report from the New York immigration court. New York City, like San Francisco, is providing some legal representation assistance for the kids, which assists an array of non-profit and religious groups offering some assistance. But the DB points out that New York is second only to Texas in how many cases it must accept in the new “rocket docket” policy for the children.
The DB also notes that “… the U.S. government is not legally required to provide a lawyer for people going through immigration proceedings—even for young kids. So New York-based advocacy groups like the Safe Passage Project, The Door, the Legal Aid Society, Catholic Charities and the American Immigration Lawyers Association have sprung into action, rallying volunteers, interpreters and pro bono attorneys in a joint effort to help guide the Border Kids through the complex and confusing world of immigration court.”
The volume is staggering, with lawyers being given weeks to prepare cases they feel should take months. Read the report from the courthouse here: The Border Kid Crisis Hits the Courts

Immigration Court Scrutiny Brings Cries For Chance

Those tens of thousands of border children seeking asylum in the United States have shed light on the nation’s immigration courts, and it’s hard to like what we’re seeing. Now, the leaders of the National Association of Immigration Judges are calling on Congress to crate what many of us though we had all along – an independent immigration court system. It turns out that the “court” is actually part of law enforcement, in effect a division of the Department of Justice.
That means, for example, that immigration judges cannot hold federal prosecutors from the Department of Homeland Security in contempt of court because judges are considered to be lawyers working for the Justice Department. Erin Kelly, of the Gannett Washington Bureau, writing in USA Today, has a great report that quotes Judge Dana Leigh Marks, a San Francisco-based immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges: “We need an independent immigration court system which stands on its own. Enforcement should not be allowed to control courts.”

Rich Sue, Poor Don’t In Downsized Courts

Under the downsized and more expensive California court systems, officials are reporting that some types of cases like probate, mental health, dependency, personal injury, property damage, and wrongful death claims continue increasing. But public-access civil cases like small claims, where there’s no attorney involved, are decreasing.
In a solid story from The Reporter newspaper in Vacaville, a Sacramento-area community in Solano County, we learn that “… in a statement issued along with a summary of the report, Justice Douglas Miller, chair of the Judicial Council’s Executive and Planning Committee, called the trend in court filings worrisome [saying] “… it coincides with two other trends that have occurred as result of budget cuts to the judicial branch: the increase in court filing fees to offset General Fund budget cuts and closure of courthouses and/or the reduction of hours at our courthouses. It’s something that we in the judicial branch are very concerned about,” Miller said in a statement.
One concern is that, with diminished hours, increased costs and the challenge of traveling to farther-away court houses, that people who would have normally turned to courts would simply give up. The report can certainly be read to support that claim.

Divorce Delay? Not If You Can Pay For Private!

Years of judicial branch budget cuts have delayed civil trials, and divorce cases have been hard-hit as family law judges focus on domestic violence orders and other priorities. While state lawmakers have been slow to react, it seems the free market is making a move: a growing trend is to have “private trials,” and it’s apparently catching on across the country.
The Tulsa World newspaper is reporting that “California-based trial consulting firm Decision Analysis has been suggesting clients use a private trial for a long time, but the procedure is just starting to gain popularity, firm president Richard Gabriel said.” He said that “I think people are starting to consider it more and more because state court budgets across the country have been severely slashed,” adding that the cuts mean fewer court staff, increasing the length of time and money it takes for cases to be completed in the public courts system.
Other advantages if you can afford to pay for judges, and sometimes juries and other costs: Private trials also provide the privacy that mediation and arbitration do. Petition for divorce and decree of divorce is public record, but unless somebody appeals to the actual court system, the conclusions of law then those specifics are confidential.

Despite all that, some studies suggest that you might actually save money because “… complicated civil cases often come out ahead financially because private trials are much quicker.” Read the story here.

L.A. Times Outlines June 3 Judicial ‘Races’

The Los Angeles Times newspaper is outlining the June 3 election options while noting that early voting actually began May 5. The paper notes the non-race nature of the process, reporting that “… dozens of Los Angeles Superior Court judges also are up for reelection this year, but, with one exception, their names won’t be on the ballot and they can be considered reelected because no challengers filed to run against them… but the ballot will include one sitting judge and his challenger, plus candidates vying to succeed 13 judges who declined to run for reelection. In three of those races, only a single candidate filed to run in each, so those races are essentially decided, even though voters will see those three candidates’ names on the ballot.”
Got it? Good. Oh, and also from the Times, “… in 10 other races, voters must choose among candidates vying to be elected to judicial seats. Of those, eight will be wrapped up in June because they feature only two candidates each, virtually guaranteeing that one will win a majority. In the two races with three candidates, November runoffs are possible.”
Check out the story and find a link to endorsements here: FAQs: The Times’ endorsement process for the June 3 elections

Budget Advisory Group Holding Thursday Call

The public can listen into the next meeting of California’s Trial Budget Advisory Committee meeting via a conference call, officials announced. The meeting will discuss “ongoing budget issues plaguing the state’s courts,” according to published accounts, and will focus on court interpreter funding and proposed revisions to some tech project allocations. 
The meeting is open to the public via conference call. The meeting will also be audiocast live. More information is available here: Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee – judicial_council.

Chief Justice Continues Funding Push

The “Tani tour” continues, and California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye may be warning wealthy communities, that may have  been spared extreme court cuts so far, that their services might soon suffer from a lack of funding. That’s because new state spending formulas take population into consideration, so slow-growth communities will feel the pain.
That talking point emerged at the Marin County Civic Center where, the Marin Independent Journal reports, “… Cantil-Sakauye described the judiciary as desperately underfunded, having been forced to cut about $1 billion since the economic downturn began around 2008. The cuts have forced the closure of 51 courthouses in the system, even as it struggles to digest 7.5 million new cases a year in a state of 38 million people speaking scores of languages.”

After the statewide message, Kim Turner, executive director of Marin Superior Court, “… said Marin has fared better than other counties because its population has not exploded. But she said Marin stands to lose money as court funding is spread to counties in dire shape.”

“It’s going to hurt,” Turner said, as quoted by the Independent Journal. “It’s going to require some belt-tightening.”
You can read the full story here.

Court Funding Gets S.D. ABC Report

The San Diego ABC News affiliate is offering some “overview” coverage of the state’s civil courts funding crisis. The story offers nothing new, but is a recent example of more mainstream press starting to notice the “five-year” crisis in justice funding. The reporters offer the insight that “Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to solve the problem” – they cite no source, but certainly plenty of justice advocates would question the governor’s motives.
The usual territory is covered: Gov. Brown’s proposed a $105 million budget increase for 14/15 and the station asks:  But is it enough to help the judicial system bounce back? We also get what has become the most-quoted talking point from California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, “We are rationing justice, and it’s become more than a fiscal problem… it is in my view not a civil rights problem.”
Also cites is the failed statewide computer system, with the ABC report saying that “… eyebrows were raised over the $1.2 billion that was spent on a computer system overhaul — a computer system that never worked.” You can read more between the lines here: Budget woes: Can California’s judicial system recover from a five-year crisis?

‘Alliance’ Judges Continue Court Critique

The Alliance of California Judges, a group that offered a statewide voice to critics of how the courts are being operated, is continuing its critique. As the annual state budget season shifts into high gear, and with the state chief justice saying that funding has become a civil rights issue, the Alliance asserts that the very system of funding is flawed.
“Former Chief Justice Ronald George’s vision of a unified judicial branch — directed by a central bureaucracy, bound together by a massive computer network, housed in dozens of gleaming new courthouses, acting in unison with the Chief Justice at its head — has proven to be a mirage,” writes Maryanne Gilliard, a Superior Court Judge in Sacramento who has been active in the Alliance for years. In 2011, the Sacramento CBS TV news affiliate called her a “whistleblower” in connection with the failed attempt to consolidate the state’s court computers (see coverage here).
Writing in The Courthouse News, Judge Gilliard uses Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye’s own words in support of her point, in particular noting that the centralized vision has not led to stable funding and that the “CCMS” computer system’s $500 million is “the most prominent example” of poor oversight.
It’s the latest salvo showing that the Alliance remains active. Read it here