Civil Court Crunch Creates Winners, Losers

If you follow California politics, you likely already know about multiple-year budget cuts that removed a billion dollars from justice system funding, effectively dismantling the state's once-vaunted community court system. The Los Angeles Superior Court, the nation's largest trial court, shuttered eight courthouses, cut hundreds of jobs and "reorganized" in ways that closed dozens of other civil courts, like traffic and juvenile.

Similar moves were taken across the state. Thousands of jobs were eliminated and dozens of courthouses closed. Civil courts bear the brunt of the cuts, as compared to criminal courts, in part because specific constitutional guarantees are enforced in criminal cases and in part because civil-court advocates are politically weak. Most people in civil courts simply want their case to be over with, and thus are difficult to organize.

Now we may be seeing the first hard evidence that citizens are not turning to their civil courts.

The recent release of California's annual Court Statistics Report indicated that California had fewer filings for cases like small claims and more filings for complex cases. Some might spin those numbers, claiming they are a good thing; people must be getting along. But that is like a hospital closing the emergency room and arguing that folks must be healthier because admissions are down.

District Court of Appeal Justice Douglas Miller, who chairs a committee involved with the Statistics Report, got it right when he said:

"Although we're uncertain about the conclusions [we] are certain about how budget cuts have affected the public and have impacted access to justice -- including reduced hours and closed courtrooms, fewer law enforcement officers on the street, and the reallocation of resources to focus on certain case types or services."

Note his phrase "reallocation of resources to certain case types."

Political code translation: Reorganizing our courts naturally created winners and losers.

Is it any surprise that the "reductions" include displaced families, children in custody limbo and those suddenly required to travel hours by bus because their local courthouse closed? I recently attended a national legal conference in San Francisco that focused on asbestos cases, but it could have been any of several "certain case types." Sure, there was talk of the justice system slowing down a bit, none of the legal elite at the five-star Fairmont Hotel seemed particularly worried about getting their day in court.

The Perrin conference is nearly unique and quite valuable in that it includes not just plaintiff's firms and defense attorneys, but also the very judges who administer the complex cases. Consensus was rare, but everyone agreed that current trends for more and more complex cases were certain to continue. That means "reallocation of resources" to those cases is certain to continue.

Now, it is absolutely true that in some cases, like where victims are literally dying, the courts should deliver expedited justice. But it is also absolutely true that California, in general, and Los Angeles County, in particular, have become favorites among those "forum shopping" -- a term often used for lawyers naturally searching for a court that favors their case. This attraction is partly because of specific state laws, but it is also partly because of how our judges tend to handle technical issues, like evidence and case management.

Look, I have friends in real estate who are quite happy to see out-of-state litigation firms suddenly filling up empty downtown office space. But I'm sorry -- in a time of reduced court capacity, it hardly seems fair that the cases served by those wining and dining at five-star hotels should get their cases heard ahead of the people cleaning the rooms of those hotels.

Maybe it remains true that "justice should be blind." But that doesn't mean so many who need the courts should remain invisible.