L.A.'s neighborhood court system goes down the drain*

courthouse.jpgWhat on earth is happening to our judicial system? An improved budget situation in Sacramento appears to be having little or no impact in the courts, where officials project an $80-million deficit for fiscal year 2013-2014. As was announced on Wednesday, the red ink will result in closing 10 courthouses in L.A. County: Huntington Park, Whittier, Pomona North, Malibu, West Los Angeles, South Los Angeles (Kenyon Juvenile), Beverly Hills, San Pedro (the main courthouse and Beacon Street annex) and Catalina. Trials and hearings that were held in these locations will be moved elsewhere - in many cases downtown, which isn't exactly convenient for many people who are older or don't have a car. And there will be layoffs. All in all, it's a civic disgrace. From the Recorder:

As part of the court's redesign, many personal injury cases will be sent to just two master calendar courtrooms in a single location to sort out all pretrial or settlement matters. Each of those judges is expected to have as many as 8,000 cases under his or her jurisdiction at any one time. "If you have a matter that has to be heard ... there's just not going to be the resources to quickly and adequately handle these matters," said Consumer Attorneys of California President Brian Kabateck, who attended the Wednesday morning briefing.


Plans also call for shrinking the number of courthouses that hear specific types of cases. Small claims cases, now heard in 26 courtrooms, will be handled in just six court facilities across the county. Courthouses that handle landlord-tenant disputes will drop from 26 to five. The 24 courthouses that hear collections cases will shrink to just two. The court will also eliminate any remaining reporters in civil cases and reduce the number of courtroom assistants, [said Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon].

Imagine the impact on small-scale business-to-consumer or business-to-business disputes. Civil cases that aren't fast-tracked through private judges or other kinds of mediation can easily drag on for years. From the LAT:

Antonio Bestard, a veteran civil trial attorney from Pomona, said that even before Wednesday's announcement, the effects of previous cuts were hard to miss. "It's going to be an unfathomable burden that's going to deny the general public basic judicial remedies, from the smallest traffic infractions to the most complicated civil lawsuits," Bestard said. David Sapp, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, worried that low-income litigants could be disproportionately affected. "Some people are in immediate need of judicial relief and may not even be able to get in front of a judge, which is really scary in terms of access to justice," Sapp said. "This is going to make existing disparities even worse."

*From a reader:

The problem with the courts has been brewing for a long time. The problem is very simple. Although the courts are a third branch of government, and having an impartial, non partisan and corruption free judiciary is clearly necessary for our form of government, its resources are allocated by the legislature subject to the governor's ability to wield a line item veto. As the legislature has grown to be more dominated by Democrats, and as the percentage of our solons who are lawyers has declined, the courts are thought of just one more constituency to be allocated funds by the legislature. This puts the courts on a collision course with all sorts of social welfare programs, laudable as they might be, as competition for the funds. Since the courts don't vote and the legislative branch's ability to lobby is constrained, its appeal for funds has to be for good governance ... The only permanent solution to this problem is one that will never be adopted. Someone has to agree on what are the core functions of the state and then set a baseline for funding for those core functions and then the legislature can divvy up the pie among the remaining "stakeholders."

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
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