SANTA ANA — In an unprecedented move, the 4th District Court of Appeal has temporarily stopped hearing civil cases this month because it is so swamped with criminal and juvenile court appeals.
Justices have blamed frivolous appeals, an increasing number of criminal cases, and a state-mandated system that now resolves civil trials sooner for clogging the already-congested appellate court.
The stopgap measure means that litigants, including those awaiting money from civil judgments and those contesting restraining orders, will have to wait longer for a resolution to their cases.
"If you're injured and you're supposed to get money, you're not going to get it until the appeal is over and it's final," Presiding Justice David Sills said Tuesday.
The appellate court handles about 650 cases each year, but filings in the past year totaled 1,465 cases--making it one of busiest appellate courts in the state, Sills said.
To reduce the backlog of criminal and juvenile court cases--which must receive priority attention--justices decided to postpone all civil hearings scheduled this month. Sills said the court plans to resume civil reviews next month, but might have to set aside civil cases again in the future if the backlog continues.
In an unusual twist, Sills said the backlog is partially due to Orange County's successful use of a statewide program to reduce the heavy caseloads in civil courts, he said. The so-called fast-track system now gets many civil lawsuits to trial within 18 months, instead of the five-year wait in previous years.
At least one justice on the appellate court has also complained about frivolous appeals clogging the system.
Lawyers and judges agreed on this: The only permanent solution will come with the appointment of additional appellate court justices. But with limited funds and the state's current fiscal woes, Sills said he does not foresee such action.
There has only been one new justice added to the Santa Ana panel in the past decade, Sills said. San Diego's appellate court, which has a comparable caseload to Orange County, has eight justices. The 4th Appellate District in Santa Ana has just five, Sills said.
Attorney Kathy Jenson, who heads the appellate law section of the Orange County Bar Assn., agreed. "We need more people, more staff attorneys to assist the justices in getting the job done," she said.
Of the appeals filed in the past year, more than 950 were civil matters, 382 were criminal matters and 129 were juvenile court matters, Sills said. The overwhelming majority of cases--about 90%--are affirmed on appeal, he said.
John Dodd, a Tustin lawyer who specializes in appellate law, said the court's decision to stop hearing civil appeals temporarily points to a breakdown in the legal system.
"The civil appellate process is important for injured people, businesses and insurance companies," Dodd said. "But if people can't get adequate redress through the system, what is left is people punching and shooting each other, and then we get in the criminal system."
Dodd said the state Legislature, which decided court funding, should re-examine its priorities.
"Instead of delving into programs we can no longer afford, they must realize that funding the court system, right after police and fire protection, is the most important function of government," Dodd said.
Sills said appellate cases in the past have taken as long as 18 months from the time of filing to decision. The time estimate is now two years or more, he said.
Criminal and juvenile court cases receive priority over civil cases because of their urgent nature.
"There's a basic concept of fairness that if someone is in jail, not entitled to bail, you should probably hear their complaint first," Sills said.
The pressures facing fourth appellate court judges surfaced this week in a dissenting opinion by Justice Thomas Crosby, who criticized his colleagues for hearing an appeal of an order requiring a Newport Beach lawyer and his client to pay $150 each to seven defendants.
"With new appeals now flooding this division . . . my colleagues have no business devoting judicial resources to this petty matter when the clear weight of authority required it to be dismissed out of hand," Crosby wrote.