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Out of line

A plan to let attorneys cut to the front of the courthouse queue is unfair.

August 14, 2007

It's 8:30 a.m., the court day is about to start, and jurors are still stuck outside in a line that snakes around the courthouse as if they were hipsters hoping to get past the bouncers and velvet rope at some Hollywood club. Now here comes a clutch of expensively dressed bigwigs, brushing past with smug self-importance and cutting to the front of the line. Is it Lindsay? Paris? Nicole? Britney? No (although they may well be in court on any given day).

They're lawyers. Their time is their clients' money. The trial can't start without them. They don't have the luxury of dawdling in courthouse lines with the common folk. And besides -- they're lawyers.

At least that seems to be the thinking behind a new Court Priority Access Program that next month will allow about 1,500 attorneys with special cards issued by the State Bar of California to cut to the head of the long lines that hold up jurors, witnesses and pretty much everyone other than court employees.

The waits are the result of weapons screening and other security measures in place in Los Angeles courthouses long before 9/11. Delays may be irritating, but they are necessary in buildings where emotions can run high. Before screening, an alarming number of criminal defendants, witnesses and estranged spouses assaulted others with deadly weapons in courtrooms or hallways.

Lawyers will still be screened, and it's a good thing. Every year, according to the Los Angeles Superior Court, a handful of them are stopped as they try to enter the building with concealed firearms. The special passes just allow them to cut to the front, where they'll go through security and delay entrance for everyone standing behind them. Lawyers argue that, after all, they are officers of the court, as necessary to the administration of justice as judges. But they are no more indispensable than jurors, who for a few days or weeks set aside family or employment duty for civic duty.

Lawyers, many of whom provide valuable leadership improving access to justice, must see the practical as well as the symbolic value in avoiding a two-tiered system of access to the courthouse. The time they spend waiting in line with the rest of us can be put to use thinking of ways to raise money for more screening equipment and personnel to speed things up for everyone, rather than dreaming up ways to cut in line.

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