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Spare California's courts from cuts

Justice is not a commodity that Californians can learn to do without for several years as the economy sorts itself out and lawmakers learn to become more responsible budget stewards.

January 24, 2012
(Los Angeles Times )

California government has cut and must keep cutting, even though at this point all cuts are substantive and they hurt. But there are some things that need to be protected when everything else is taking a hit. Courts have taken as much slashing as they can bear, and then some.

After imposing some $350 million in cuts in the current budget year, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed leaving the courts alone in the coming year — unless, of course, expected revenues fail to materialize. In that case, an automatic "trigger" would be pulled and courts would be in the sights.

But these trigger cuts are unaffordable. Justice is not a commodity that Californians can learn to do without for several years as the economy sorts itself out. If the money doesn't come in this year — if voters reject a temporary tax increase, if Facebook doesn't go public and the capital gains don't roll in, if earnings and revenues don't recover to the degree Brown's finance experts predict — there must in fact be further cuts. But not to courts.

Police, criminal laws and prisons are pointless without courts for adjudication and sentencing. Regulating or deregulating business is pointless if there are insufficient courtrooms to adjudicate business disputes, consumer complaints and regulatory matters. Police cannot protect endangered spouses or children without domestic violence protection orders, and those must come from courts.

The average citizen may go years without entering a courthouse except to serve on a jury or pay a traffic ticket. It's difficult sometimes — for people who aren't lawyers, litigants, crime victims or others who know their way around the courts — to remember that the justice system is not merely another government agency but rather an essential branch in its own right that balances the Legislature and the executive and makes a society of laws actually work.

These are real issues today. The Los Angeles County Superior Court has closed some courtrooms, but the big cuts are looming — unless the trigger finger is loosened and some previous spending cuts are reversed. Elsewhere in California, the failure of justice is more immediate. When domestic violence protection orders are available only a few days a week, as senior court officials say is the case in some parts of the state, people otherwise protected can be injured or killed. Backlogs of child custody cases, due to the closure of dependency courts, can leave children without an adult with legal authority to parent them.

"No courts, no justice," said court supporters at a downtown rally Wednesday. "No justice, no freedom." They're right, but they should have added: No money, no courts. Trigger or no trigger, California cannot afford discounted justice.

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