My gavel rests in my hand. Normally it sits on a sound block of rich deep rosewood, the same substance from which it was worked. I bought it five years ago in London. This is a quality gavel, the type a California Superior Court judge should own. It’s a hammer of justice.
Justice that my state apparently cannot afford.
At 8 o’clock in the morning of June 15, 2012, the Los Angeles Superior Court laid off 157 people from its staff and demoted 86 more. Another 108 were forced into part-time positions. Eighty were transferred into new jobs, usually in new locations throughout the county.
We closed ten percent of our courtrooms, 56 to be exact.
And it’s not over yet. By next year, Los Angeles County alone has to reduce its court budget between another fifty-five and eighty million dollars, more than twice the amount of this year’s cuts. We’ll probably conduct hearings without court reporters in all civil matters. People will have to wait longer – perhaps five years – for their cases to be heard. Self-help centers may close. Even some judges who hear criminal cases will lose their dockets.
The one third of American government that the rest of the world admires most — we will debase and ration what’s left. And I’m afraid the general public does not yet understand what is happening to them.
The gavel symbolizes a judge’s responsibility and the essence of our civilized society. As judges, we agonize over a decision, but when we make it, we bring the proverbial hammer down. We can end a career or save it. We can turn off a life support system, grant relief to a class of thousands, and remove a child from a family. I voided an election once. Before naming me to the bench, the Governor’s Appointments Secretary asked if, in the right case, I could sign a warrant of execution, the state’s official command to kill.
These days, I don’t rap my gavel so often. I deny myself its powerful sound.
The lack of use of my gavel symbolizes something troubling. Cost cutting in the courts is reducing swift justice and in so doing is diminishing a cherished cornerstone of our democracy.
Note: The views in this piece are solely those of the author.