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L.A. Court System Severely Crippled by Staff's Sickout

December 15, 1987|VICTOR MERINA and TRACY WOOD | Times Staff Writers

Unhappy over stalled contract talks, nearly 1,300 Los Angeles County court reporters, clerks, prosecutors and public defenders stayed away from their jobs Monday, forcing the postponement of several criminal trials and shutting down much of the court system.

Members of the Los Angeles County Court Coalition staged the sickout to force county negotiators back to the bargaining table to renew talks that broke down last week in a dispute over wages.

County officials reported that more than one-third of the deputy district attorneys, two-thirds of the public defenders and a majority of Superior and Municipal court clerks and reporters were missing from their posts.

'Vote With Their Feet'

"People are getting an opportunity here to vote with their feet. It's an act of conscience for each of these individuals," said coalition spokesman Gary Cramer, who warned that the work action may continue today.

"We don't know exactly when people will go back to work. We believe this activity . . . is just the beginning unless the county will come back to the table and start discussing seriously and with good faith with us the issues that are so vital to us," Cramer told a news conference at the headquarters of Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union.

Cramer insisted that neither Local 660, which represents most of the court employees, nor the coalition had sanctioned the job action, but it was clear that the sickout was well orchestrated. Its impact was felt throughout the court system.

Jurors already assigned to trials were left with nowhere to go. People called to jury duty stood in crowded rooms--waiting to be screened for new trials that did not begin Monday.

Like some of his colleagues, Superior Court Judge Paul Boland found himself answering phones, rummaging through files and single-handedly trying to perform all his courtroom jobs. "I'm sitting on the bench, I'm clerk and I'm court reporter," he said.

Among the hardest hit were the Superior Courts where civil, criminal, family law, probate and juvenile proceedings are heard. In all, 90% of the 330 court reporters and 55% of the 320 clerks "participated in the sickout," said Frank S. Zolin, Superior Court executive officer who added that the job action "closed down two-thirds to three-fourths of our operations today."

Reporters Cause Problem

While county officials were able to use supervisors to fill in for court clerks, Zolin said, the absence of court reporters meant that "well over 200 of our 278 courts had to modify or suspend trials because we did not have court reporters to make an official record."

Court reporters provide a word-for-word transcript of proceedings, and without them no major business can be conducted unless attorneys agree to the reporter's absence.

"We were able to adjust and cover for the loss of the courtroom clerks, but there's no way to adjust and cover for the loss of the court reporters," Zolin added.

The absence of court reporters Monday also led to delays in some celebrated cases.

In the downtown Superior Court, the sentencing of Mark Allen Olds, convicted of brutally attacking Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, was postponed two days because no court reporter was available to take down testimony, including a statement that Galanter had prepared.

Jury deliberations in a death penalty case and the trial of two men accused of the 1984 Chinatown shooting of Los Angeles Police Officer Duane Johnson were also recessed because of the absence of court reporters.

In the downtown Criminal Courts Building where there are 29 Superior Court criminal departments, only three of the 29 court reporters came to work. And of the 29 clerks, 12 came to work, according to John Walker, director of criminal court services.

In the Municipal Courts, all but one of the 110 court reporters were absent from their jobs, which stunned court officials because they thought the negotiations were continuing.

Came as a Surprise

"This job action that we're experiencing today came pretty much as a surprise," said George Trammell, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Municipal Court who called the sickout "an illegal job action."

Outlying courts appeared to suffer fewer problems. At the San Fernando Courthouse only a handful of clerks and court reporters were out, said Municipal Judge Michael S. Luros, supervising judge. And while several cases were shuffled to other courtrooms because of the lack of court reporters, none were postponed. But the sickout also slowed operations at the Van Nuys Courthouse and halted business in some courtrooms.

In Santa Monica Superior Court 11 of 15 court clerks, 27 of 30 public defenders, 24 of 28 deputy district attorneys and 14 of 15 court reporters were out.

Spokesman Al Albergate said that while more than one-third of 800 deputy district attorneys were absent from work, all seven lawyers in the Beverly Hills branch were out on Monday.

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