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Hotel Holds Court to Meet Case Backlog


LONG BEACH — Themis, the goddess of justice, might want to let go of the scales and lift her blindfold long enough to take a peek at this one: a Superior Court trial where the jurors sip ice water from long-stemmed glasses, the witness stand is festooned with a white-linen table skirt and the judge's chambers has a built-in mahogany vanity.

It's a court trial all right, but it isn't going on at the overcrowded, worse-for-wear Long Beach courthouse. It's in the California Room at the Holiday Inn, right along with the "Stamp Out Foot Problems with Dr. Jeffrey" seminar.

The courthouse has been stretched to its limits for years with an overwhelming number of felony criminal cases--3,271 in 1989 to be exact--more than half of them drug-related, said Supervising Superior Court Judge Richard F. Charvat.

Eight of the nine judges at the courthouse are assigned to hear criminal cases just to keep up with the busloads of defendants who have a right to go to trial within 60 days or have their charges dismissed.

That left just one judge and one courtroom in the courthouse to handle more than 1,700 civil matters also awaiting trial in Long Beach.

Observers have been warning for years that the courthouse would one day overflow. It finally did, right into the cylinder-shaped hotel at Lakewood Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway.

"We're in desperate need of a new facility or additional courtrooms, something that is not about to happen from what I have been told," Charvat said. "Long Beach can handle its own criminal load, but the sacrifice is that civil cases don't get the attention they deserve. And as a result, they get tried in hotel rooms."

At $125 a day for the room and $450 a day for the rented services of retired Superior Court Judge Carroll M. Dunnum, Los Angeles County is finally giving 73-year-old William Rathje his day in court.

Rathje contends that his wife, Netta, shot herself to death in their Lake Elsinore home at the age of 69 after she was diagnosed as having intestinal cancer, treated for 15 months, then told she never had cancer in the first place.

He is suing a Riverside radiation group and a Long Beach psychiatrist, both of whom contend their encounter with the woman was brief and unrelated to her suicide nearly two years later.

The case was filed almost five years ago--the limit within which the law says civil cases must be brought to trial.

While Long Beach has often taken advantage of the county's so-called "rent-a-judge" program that hires retired judges to clear backlogged calendars, the city has always managed to find a spare courtroom.

But an increasing number of drug cases and the city's growing population have outstripped court facilities that have not expanded since the courthouse was built in the 1960s, Charvat said.

Lawyers were apprehensive at first that it would be difficult to keep an air of decorum while holding court on a green and purple geometric carpet. But the consensus, so far, is that justice is even better served at the Holiday Inn.

Court starts precisely at 9:30 a.m. because the judge isn't juggling a dozen other matters. There is plenty of parking; fresh ice water is delivered twice a day and the 13th-floor restaurant with a panoramic view of Long Beach puts the courthouse snack bar to shame.

When court officials worried that the judge and the witness stand were at an undignified eye-level with the jury, the hotel moved in a platform, complete with a purple skirt, to lift them to a more stately height.

The judge misses his law library and private bathroom, but those minor inconveniences are more than offset by five solid hours of court time he says is put in daily, because there are no interruptions.

"You're lucky if you get three or 3 1/2 hours in at the courthouse," Dunnum said from his "chambers," a makeshift room behind a movable wall. "Here you don't have attorneys and processors running in and out and slamming doors and bodies rushing all around. And we can sit and guzzle ice water all day."

Officials say hotel trials, which have been successful in Torrance and Santa Monica, could offer a much-needed reprieve in Long Beach, where one civil court judge struggles to do the work of four who sit in some branch courts.

"If it wasn't for the Holiday Inn," said plaintiff's attorney John Thornton, "we'd still be waiting."

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