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In California, justice takes a day off

The state's chief justice says shutting down the courts one day a month will be a burden -- and a test of our ability to deal with fiscal crisis.

September 14, 2009|Ronald M. George | Ronald M. George is chief justice of California and chairman of the state Judicial Council.

Starting Sept. 16, the largest court system in the nation will be closing the doors of courthouses across the state one day each month. On Wednesday, an estimated 3 million cases will be delayed, 150 jury trials interrupted and 250 child custody cases unheard. Jails will be more crowded as arraignment and release dates are postponed; attorneys and their clients will be inconvenienced, as will jurors; and the public will experience longer lines, more delays and more crowded courtrooms.

Wednesday is the first of 10 monthly statewide closure days (uniformly the third Wednesday of each month) authorized by the Judicial Council, the constitutionally created body that administers California's court system. As in many other states, the council was created in the 1920s, an outgrowth of the Progressive movement, which sought to make government more efficient, more effective and more accountable. The mission of the council today remains largely unchanged: to ensure the consistent, impartial and accessible administration of justice in the state.

Why then is the council, a body created to protect and increase access to justice in California, allowing our courts to close for even one day a month?

California's economic crisis has affected government at all levels and in nearly every area of service, as well as every aspect of private life and business. For seven months, Californians have endured the effects of mandatory furloughs for many state workers, first two days a month and now three. But courts are not state agencies. And courthouses -- known earlier in our history as "temples of justice" -- are not just office buildings; they are the repository of our fundamental commitment to justice for all. The unintended yet inevitable symbolism of "Closed" signs on institutions that embody our democratic ideals is yet another tragic indicator of the severity of California's economic crisis.

The Judicial Council, with express authorization from the Legislature and the governor, made the difficult decision to close courts one day a month to avoid even more damaging consequences of reductions in the judicial branch's budget. This course of action was taken with great reluctance at an emergency public meeting in July, after substantial input from local courts and after months of examining alternatives. In the end, court closures proved to be the only rational option available to address budget realities while protecting skilled employees from massive layoffs, maintaining a consistent level of court services for litigants and their lawyers, and preserving equal access to justice. Indeed, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County had already concluded that closures were inevitable and in July became the first court in the state to implement monthly closures.

At the emergency meeting, I pledged to reduce my own salary to share in the sacrifice we are asking of the majority of the 21,000 men and women who work in the California judicial branch. I also encouraged my judicial colleagues across the state -- more than 1,600 trial judges and an additional 111 appellate justices -- to join me in voluntarily waiving their salaries for one day a month or donating a portion of their salaries to support court operations. I am gratified to report that a very high percentage of the judges in the state have pledged to either participate in the waiver or to make private donations to their respective courts. As The Times recently reported, that figure is exceptionally high in Los Angeles, where 423 of the 430 judges are participating in voluntary pay reductions.

At this critical juncture in our state's history, even as the judicial branch is forced to close courts one day a month, the state court system itself remains stronger and better able to deliver on the promise of equal justice under law because of the many changes we have made in the last several years. In the years I have served as California's chief justice and chairman of the Judicial Council, the judicial branch has undergone the most significant structural reforms in our state's history.

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