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Reduced Library Hours Give New Meaning to 'Brief'

Because of budget constraints, public law libraries across the state are closing earlier.

January 23, 2004|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Attorney Donald L. Clark began the day in Van Nuys, arguing a workers' compensation claim for a client. Next, he had to research and write a motion to quash a subpoena.

He would have preferred just to stop by the cramped branch office of the Los Angeles County Law Library on the third floor of the Van Nuys Courthouse. But he needed more than a few hours to complete his work.

"It's only open until 2 p.m., so I had to come here," he said, referring to the main County Law Library in downtown Los Angeles. And if he didn't complete the motion by the new 6 p.m. closing time, he'd have to return the next morning.

Clark was one of dozens of people -- lawyers and non-lawyers alike -- who pored over volumes researching case law and reviewing legislative histories at the library Wednesday afternoon, as its Board of Trustees pondered how to ease the impact of recent reductions in library hours.

Los Angeles County's is just one of the 58 public law libraries in the state struggling to make ends meet this year. To cut a nearly $1 million deficit, library officials now close their doors earlier, ending evening access to the stacks. They are now seeking private funding for the future, and raising fees for immediate relief.

The surcharge on the filing of civil lawsuits jumped to $16, effective Jan. 1, with proceeds going to the library. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will soon consider a $50 annual fee for anyone who wants to borrow books.

Meanwhile, law libraries in Humboldt, Plumas and Tuolumne counties have had to close and to stop updating their law books, according to Anne R. Bernardo, president of the Council of California County Law Librarians.

County law libraries, established by the state Legislature in 1891, have always been self-sufficient. They are governed by independent boards of local judges, lawyers and others, and rely on civil filing fees to pay their bills. Those fees vary by county, with litigants paying as much as $42 extra to file a lawsuit in Sacramento County.

Law libraries have suffered financially over the past decade as the number of civil lawsuits has decreased, and the number of indigent litigants whose filing fees are waived by the court has increased, said Richard Lamele, law library director in Los Angeles.

Less litigation "is a good thing for society," he said, "but it definitely hurts us."

To address the situation, lawmakers last year directed the state Judicial Council to create a task force to explore alternative funding options.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George stressed law libraries' role in helping people who cannot afford lawyers navigate the justice system.

"Law libraries perform a very important service not only for attorneys but also, possibly more importantly, for self-represented litigants," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Inside the downtown facility, at 1st and Hill streets, a 23-year-old mother embroiled in a child-custody battle was preparing for a dependency court hearing. She was paging through Black's Law Dictionary trying to learn a few of the terms her court-appointed lawyer sprinkled into their conversations.

At another table, a former "jailhouse lawyer" was helping an imprisoned friend draft a motion to throw out the friend's conviction based on an illegal police search.

Burton Selman, an unemployed Harvard Law School graduate, is fighting his health-insurance provider over prescription-drug coverage. And Theresa McGonigle and Mary Oleinik are researching legal issues for the judges who employ them.

Susan Steinhauser, president of the Los Angeles County Law Library Board of Trustees, said big law firms also benefit from the expansive collections. When law librarians at their firms can't find a copy of an international treaty or an appellate brief, they call the library staff, she said.

As she and the board struggled with budgetary issues, Steinhauser turned to the library's wealthiest users for money. She helped throw a big party in October to mark the library's 50th year at its downtown site, and the building's dedication in honor of Mildred L. Lillie, the state's longest-serving appellate justice, who died in 2002.

The event, the library's first fundraiser, netted $95,000 that will be used, in part, as start-up money for a new group, Friends of the Los Angeles County Law Library.

"The law firms aren't used to supporting the law library this way," said Steinhauser, a lawyer appointed to the board by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "They are used to supporting Bet Tzedek and Public Counsel" and other nonprofit law centers.

Susanne Pierce Dyer, president of the Northern California Assn. of Law Libraries, pointed out that lawyers who practice in federal, bankruptcy and criminal courts do not contribute to library funding but have the same access as civil litigators.

"You're getting a free ride," she said.

As the task force explores long-term funding, library trustees in Los Angeles County debated whether they made the right decisions.

"We have cut off people who work during the day -- totally," said Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Soussan G. Bruguera, who advocated restoring night hours at the main law library at least once a week. The library had been open to 10 on weeknights.

After hours, there are few places people can go to do legal research. Some law schools invite their alumni to use their libraries, but they are not open to the public.

Wayne Yee, who has an office in the Wilshire District of Los Angeles, sometimes drives an hour to his alma mater, Western State University College of Law, for late-night research sessions. "I'd rather come here than drive all the way down to Fullerton," he said.

Without the public law library, Clark said his San Marino-based firm would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars more a year on law books, driving up its overhead and, ultimately, client costs.

"It will make the system more expensive," he said. "Already the average guy can't afford an attorney."

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