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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.

The court reforms of recent years rival those of the Progressive era and will exceed them in the benefits they provide to the public. Legislation in 1997 that allowed for statewide funding of the trial courts addressed historic inequities in the quality of justice dispensed among California's 58 counties. In 1998, California voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution to permit the unification of the 220 Superior and Municipal courts into 58 trial courts -- one in each county. Unification has allowed greater flexibility in the use of judicial and staff resources, eliminated duplicative services and led to the creation of additional services for the public, such as collaborative justice courts, domestic violence courts, drug courts and complex litigation courts. Finally, the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002 called for the transfer of responsibility for court facilities from the counties to the state. This allowed the judicial branch for the first time to assume responsibility for the buildings in which judges and court staff work and the public is served, and to do so economically and effectively. To date, 503 (more than 90%) of our court structures have been transferred to the state's ownership under judicial branch management.

These historic changes and the growing responsibilities of the council have been a means to an end. They have strengthened the judiciary as a coequal and independent branch of government and secured the system of checks and balances essential to a robust democracy. They have addressed budget inequities among trial courts around the state. They have improved our branch's accountability to our sister branches of government for the financial appropriations provided to the courts. And ultimately they have enhanced equal access to justice and provided a greater degree of accountability.

One irony of the current crisis is that it restricts court services at a time when the need for them is increasing. The economic downturn has produced a sharp spike in civil filings, especially in the areas of contract and unlawful detainer, which includes evictions. This increase has more than offset a small decline in criminal filings. What this means to judges and court staff is that we are asking them to do more with less. What this means for all Californians is that we must provide adequate resources for courts to resolve disputes in an orderly manner, or suffer the consequences of being unable to meet the public's needs.

When I served as a trial judge in Los Angeles during the 1970s and '80s, California was still in its age of abundance. Today we are in a far more challenging time. The fiscal crisis in our state will have profound effects on many aspects of public service, including the courts, in the next fiscal year and for several years to come. I am committed to protecting the public from the full impact of further reductions in court services, and from any decline in the high quality of justice that so many have worked so long to achieve.

My hope is that as we are tested by this crisis, all of us -- state government officers, justices and judges, court employees and Californians everywhere -- will join together in meeting these challenges. How we proceed will tell us a great deal about the prospects for our state in the years ahead.

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