Bailiffs listen from the empty hallway as Judge Charles W. McCoy Jr., then… (Los Angeles Times )
The recently announced major restructuring of the civil courts of the Los Angeles Superior Court has not evoked much of a response. But the significant changes to come should be cause for distress to anyone concerned about open and equal access to justice in our society.
Steep budget cuts forced the Superior Court to undergo two prior rounds of courtroom closures and employee layoffs. The latest cuts, to take effect over the next six months, include the closure of all courtrooms in 10 regional courthouses, including those in Beverly Hills and San Pedro.
There is no immediate prospect for more funding in sight. The court is left with no alternative to a painful reorganization of judicial resources that undoubtedly will lengthen the time for concluding civil cases. Although there will be some closures and adjustments to criminal courts, constitutional and public safety imperatives dictate that criminal prosecutions will not be much impacted by the reorganization.
The court leadership has worked hard to devise creative approaches to keep courtrooms open and civil cases decided, notwithstanding the budget reductions. But there simply isn't enough money coming from the state to maintain the court system in Los Angeles as it has been and should be run. Unfortunately, these dire straits have necessitated dire solutions.
The curtailment of court functions could severely test the public's confidence in our state courts. Certainly, the decrease in court services challenges a basic tenet of our judicial system — that everyone is entitled to his or her day in court. It also underscores the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied.
What's in store for the coming year?
For starters, to maximize courtroom and staff utilization, most civil cases involving a broad range of personal injury, collection, eviction, small claims and probate matters will be shifted from the closed courtrooms to the downtown central civil courthouse, or to a limited number of designated courthouses where various types of cases will be grouped. This could be a shock to attorneys and jurors accustomed to cases being assigned to local courthouses throughout the county. Trials could be affected if witnesses are unable or unwilling to testify because they have to travel farther.
With the closures, the past convenience of paying or contesting traffic tickets, filing and defending small-claims actions, resolving landlord-tenant disputes and presenting harassment complaints at these local courthouses will be directly affected. A greater financial burden will be placed on litigants, especially the economically disadvantaged, who will have to present their legal issues at distant courthouses. And more staff layoffs, further slowing the judicial process, appear inevitable.
It may come as a surprise to many people that, as of this summer, for the most part the Los Angeles civil courts no longer have staff court reporters recording and transcribing various proceedings. There is no statutory requirement for a court reporter in civil cases. The reorganization will complete the elimination of these reporters in civil courtrooms, including for trials. If litigants in civil cases want a transcript, they will have to hire a reporter on a pay-as-you-go basis. One wonders what the "record" will look like in appeals when there is no official transcript of the proceedings.
Another victim of the budgetary chopping block is the court's alternative dispute resolution program, which has provided free or low-cost mediation services to civil litigants for decades. Though a number of civil trial courts are converting to settlement courts with limited staffing, the demand for settlement resources will greatly exceed availability.
For those who can afford the hefty freight, another option is the second judiciary, composed of retired judges and attorneys who conduct mediations on a private, for-fee basis. But these latter services often are beyond the financial reach of many parties to lawsuits.
If there were ever a time to pay attention to the quality of justice that we have come to expect and deserve from our judicial system, it is now. The public should not be content with the dislocation and delays in resolving civil disputes caused by court funding shortages. Equal access to justice under the law demands more. It requires action by everyone to make the elected officials responsible for funding our courts aware that the words "equal justice under the law" cannot become just another hollow slogan.
Michael L. Stern is a judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, presiding in a downtown civil trial courtroom.