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Deputies Ordered Back to Work

Judge issues temporary ruling after a sickout forced the closure of some courthouses.

October 02, 2003|Jean Guccione, Richard Winton and Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writers

A judge ordered Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies back to work Wednesday, hours after officials closed five courthouses and sent 7,000 jurors home because hundreds of deputies assigned to the courts had called in sick.

Orange County Superior Court Judge John Watson issued a temporary restraining order against the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, its officers and 6,200 members, after officials said the walkouts were endangering public safety.

The order follows two weeks of wildcat walkouts that mostly affected court operations in Los Angeles County. Union officials said they did not organize or orchestrate the sickouts. They attributed them to a growing frustration among rank-and-file deputies over stalled labor negotiations.

After the judge ruled, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca warned deputies that they must comply with the order or face discipline.

"Deputies are sworn to uphold the law. I expect everyone in the department to follow it," he said.

On Wednesday, 340 of the 1,275 deputies assigned to provide security at the county's courthouses called in sick, said Sgt. Joe Badali of the sheriff's Employee Relations Bureau.

As a result, court officials closed courthouses in Hollywood, Chatsworth and Norwalk, and the Central Arraignment Court near Men's Central Jail and Central Civil West, which handles the county's complex cases.

Outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, hundreds of lawyers and litigants involved in non-criminal matters were locked out of the building until 11:30 a.m., when deputies were transferred from jails to the courts.

While the building was still closed to the public, attorneys for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and Baca made their way to the eighth floor to ask for the court order.

Attorney Richard A. Shinee, who represents the union, argued that all judges of the Los Angeles County Superior Court should be disqualified from the case because the forced closure of the courthouse "well might irritate, anger or frustrate jurists sitting on the Los Angeles Superior Court bench."

Under court rules, Chief Justice of California Ronald M. George appointed Watson to hear the case in Orange County.

Watson ordered deputies to go back to work and warned that failure to do so could result in jail time and a fine.

He also ordered President Roy Burns to leave a voice message on the union "hotline" advising members of his order and urging them to comply.

"The county has not proven that the union has done anything wrong," he said, but added that substantial evidence exists that union officials "may have had an influence" on the failure of deputies to go to work.

"We're in a no-win situation," Shinee said.

If the "blue flu" epidemic ends, then it appears as if the union orchestrated it, he said. If not, the association would be held liable for the illegal actions of its members.

Shinee said the wildcat action is "not a reflection on the strength or weakness of the union" but rather is a reflection of the frustration among members.

Sheriff's deputies have been without a labor contract since January and county officials have said that they do not have the money to give pay raises to any employees. A second contract on fringe benefits expired Wednesday.

Sheriff's deputies assigned to courthouses now make $62,000 to $70,000 annually.

Principal County Counsel Rick Brower argued that the job slowdown could result in the release of suspects who should be kept in custody, and the detention of others who should be released.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he agreed with the temporary restraining order. The board had authorized its lawyers to seek the order.

"The deputies' action left the county no option but to seek a restraining order," Yaroslavsky said. "Public safety is at issue and this action forced the county's hand."

Meanwhile, Baca videotaped a message to deputies emphasizing the county's budget crisis and expressing a shared frustration with deputies.

But Baca warned that the continued job action could hurt public trust.

"An unnecessary absence by any of us will hurt our ability to do what we do best ... protect the men, women and children of this county ... I am asking for your continued commitment to those duties, especially during these trying times."

Times staff writer Ken Reich contributed to this story.

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