Thirty-six years ago, when I began practicing law in the Los Angeles Superior Court system, the backlog of cases was so immense that you had to wait five years to get to trial. A Master Calendar Department would then put the lawyers on Beepers (like some restaurants today use), and, when your Beeper buzzed you, it was time to gather up your boxes of documents and your witnesses, and come to the courtroom designated for your trial – if that courtroom was not already backed up, trying one or more cases.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, first on an experimental basis, and then as part of a sweeping reform statutory scheme in the state Government Code, the ‘Fast Track’ began in California’s trial courts, the Superior Courts of each county in the state. The aim was to get 95%+ of all civil cases to trial within a year after filing – it was almost achieved in the later 90’s and early 2000’s.
Then, the giant real estate/lending/Wall St. Bubble of the early 2000’s burst, leaving us in the throes of the Great Recession, which some say never really ended, despite statistics ginned up to the contrary by financial guru’s who are well paid to gin up statistics that few pay much attention to. With the Great Recession, came the realization that California, a state of more than 38 million residents, was nearly broke, and hopelessly upside-down financially.
And thus began the waves upon waves of state court cutbacks. I have lost count of how many, but there have been at least 4 or 5, coming in like the tide – decimating the staffing structure of the Los Angeles County Superior Court (where, at one time, more sitting judges were in service, than in all of Great Britain). Leaving the judges with fewer and fewer staff, law and research clerks, to survive the daily rigors of mountains of paper, which had to be read, analyzed, researched, digested, and from which, theoretically, justice would then emerge. Some courts have been so overwhelmed that they cannot try cases at all, and more, like San Francisco Superior Court, have announced that we are slipping back to the 5-years-to-trial days once again.
But, the Mother of all cutbacks of our state court system comes today, Monday, June 3., when “eight courthouses will close completely: Huntington Park, Kenyon Juvenile, Malibu, Pomona North, San Pedro Courthouse and its annex, West L.A. and Whittier.” Others will remain open, but scrambling to operate on even thinner staffing. Certain types of cases will all be transferred to certain courts, and only those courts will handle all of that type – such as personal injury cases, which will now all be heard downtown at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse. While civil cases alone overwhelm the Los Angeles Superior Court, criminal cases, due to state and federal law guaranteeing speedy trials, take precedence and can, and often do, knock a civil case out of its position on the waiting list for trial.
In the last several cutbacks, particularly the one in June 2012, the LA Superior Court did away with the practice of having Court Reporters always at the ready to transcribe proceedings in all courts – replacing this familiar and important role with it now being the requirement of each litigating party to bring to court, and pay for, their own Court Reporter. Also, the entire Alternative Dispute Resolution Program (“ADR”) in the LA Superior Court has been eliminated due to our ongoing budget crisis. ADR formerly brought you Mediations, Arbitrations, and other ways to get cases out of the trial court system, in order to streamline and economize. What’s that you say? That it is illogical to have such overcrowding of our courts and then to do away with the court’s own ADR programs, which are designed to help alleviating such overcrowding? Logic has nothing to do with these cutbacks. It is pure bottom-line, money, at stake. Not enough money to maintain and operate our state trial courts, that is.
Recently, ad hoc groups have formed to tackle the gross underfunding of our state trial courts which threatens to render our entire state justice system paralyzed, and but a shadow of its former self. Urgent pleas have been sent out to California’s lawyers (all members of our mandatory CA State Bar) and judges to help, to volunteer, and to support, plans to get our state trial courts properly funded and to stop decimating our state court justice system by this death-by-a-thousand- cuts manner of budget cutbacks. One of these new ideas is an important proposal for the state legislature to utilize $100 Million in surplus funds to properly fund our state courts, in order that they can perform their vital role administering our state system of justice in our complex 21st Century society.
It has long been the vogue to hate and ridicule lawyers and our court system – but, they are both absolutely necessary parts of a working justice system, without which, a modern, complex society simply cannot function. Somalia, and other failed states, are the alternative to having a functioning, properly funded court system – not a pleasant thought to contemplate. Our court system exists to adjudicate disputes – a commodity of which, we have no shortage, and which in fact seems to grow, with our population, and with the ever-increasing complexity of the wired world in which we live here in the still early 21st Century.
Our state court system is the modern evolution of a justice system which goes all the way back to Merry Old England, and the Magna Carta of 1215 – but, there were lawyers in Ancient Rome too. The Anglo-Saxon system of jurisprudence on which our state legal system is based, with the added layer of Spanish/Mexican law that we inherited when California became a state of the United States in the middle of the 19th Century, is a venerable product of hundreds upon hundreds of years of human behavior and precedents for dealing with problems which inevitably arise. Laws of ever-increasing complexity, are meant to reign in the rough edges of our human behavior, and to avoid the kinds of feuds, tribal warring, and people taking law into their own hands, which we can still see today in the dysfunctional countries of the Middle East.
Starving our state court system of the funds that it needs to operate, helps absolutely nobody. ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ as the old adage goes – it makes no sense to go back to the situation of the 1970’s, when litigants had to wait 5 years to get their ‘day in court,’ to get to trial. This is particularly so considering the relative success of the Fast Track reforms in getting cases to trial within one year of filing – these are undisputed.
Starving our court system and state system of justice to the point where it can fit in a bathtub and then drowning it in that bathtub, may have sounded like a good idea to some, but the real world effect of doing so – and that’s exactly what has happened with each of these waves of funding cutbacks – is a painfully short-sighted solution to nothing, and will spawn horrendous societal problems if allowed to continue. Our justice system is the modern, civilized alternative to bashing your neighbor over the head with a loose brick, or enlisting all your relatives to attack your neighbor and his family, because you are having a disagreement over a tree growing from her backyard and over your fence – too much of human civilization worked this violent way for far too many millennia.
We have come a long way, and our society has a huge investment in maintaining a working, properly funded state court system. Please make your voice heard on this critical subject, now, when it matters. Even if the Legislature actually implements the proposal to use $100 million of the state financial surplus to properly fund our state court system, it will be too late to avoid the problems already engendered by previous cutbacks, but it is a start in the right direction for a change. Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish . . . .