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Lifeline for the Court

February 22, 1988

A blue-ribbon committee has thrown a lifeline to the California Supreme Court, now almost drowning in a sea of paperwork. Never before has the court's docket been so jammed. And, regrettably, never before has the court seemed less able to handle its load. The actual number of written opin-ions issued has fallen in the past eight years, from an average of 176 a year to the current average of 129. The dilatory work habits of a few justices may have contributed to that declining productivity, but the real problem is that we Californians de-mand too much of our highest court.

The proposals offered by the Select Committee on Internal Procedures of the Supreme Court, appointed last year by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, ought to ease the court's burdens somewhat. The panel of distinguished lawyers and jurists suggested paring away some of the high court's jurisdiction by sending appeals of Public Utilities Commission decisions and State Bar dis-ciplinary cases first to the state courts of appeal. The high court's research staff would be enlarged to take over the preliminary work on civil appeals. A special pool of experienced attorneys should also be hired, the panel said, to help the justices analyze death-penalty cases that come to them on automatic appeals from the trial courts.

All these proposals are aimed at giving the seven justices more time for the important business of deciding the cases before them, writing opinions and laying down broad principles to guide the lower courts. Now the justices and their personal staffs spend half their time, a disproportionate amount, simply sifting through appeals to see which should be granted formal review. It seems to us that shifting some of that workload to other court personnel--while, of course, retaining for the justices the final authority over which cases to hear--is sensible.

Retired Justice Frank K. Richardson, the panel's chairman, almost apologetically described the proposals as "bland and undramatic." But we think that it was wise for the panel to approach its task with caution. The state Supreme Court is far too important an institution to subject to needless experimentation or radical ideas. Enforcing the all-but-forgotten 90-day rule--which in theory requires justices to decide cases within 90 days of submission--would have been impossible, given the current caseload. The committee briefly dis-cussed that possibility, but opted instead simply to prod the justices to monitor more closely the pace of their work and to set their own time limits on the writing of dissenting or concurring opinions--now often a bottleneck.

The high court should give itself some time to see if the committee's suggestions will work. We believe, however, that eventually the Legislature will have to consider more drastic solutions to the court's problems, like eliminating the state Constitution's provision of automatic direct appeals of capital cases. We all recognize that, because of the finality of capital punishment, death-penalty cases ought to be scrutinized closely and decided uniformly. But capital cases now account for nearly half the court's backlog, and some of those cases stay on the docket for years. It seems to us far more practical to send capital cases on the normal route through the courts of appeal, where the trial transcripts can be reviewed, errors corrected and constitutional issues sharpened. Having the high court grapple with each of those cases does not strike us as a good use of a precious commodity--judicial time.

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