Brian Kabateck is a Los Angeles lawyer and president of Consumer Attorneys of California.

Viewpoints: Justice system in California is under budgetary assault

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013 - 7:53 am

It's all too easy to take our courts for granted. To everyday citizens, the county courthouse is a solid edifice largely to be avoided except when the jury summons arrives. The justice system has been around forever, we figure, an unbreakable third branch of government that has been part of the American fabric since the days of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. Our founders' yearning for courts composed of citizen juries and judges free of a king's dictates helped spark the American Revolution.

But today our unbreakable courts are increasingly broken.

Here in California, a state boasting one of the most sprawling and respected justice systems on the planet, the courts have been among the hardest hit arms of government during the recession. Revenue from the state's general fund to the courts has been slashed by $1.1 billion over the last five years – an agonizing 30 percent cut since 2007.

The impact is being felt from Del Norte County down through Sacramento and all the way south to San Diego. County court administrators have been shutting down courtrooms or whole courthouses. The number of clerks, court reporters and other staff support has withered. The state has hiked fees for every conceivable step of a civil case, raising the economic bar for workaday citizens to access justice. Even basic operations are grinding to a halt: At many county courthouses, the public is greeted by daylong waits to simply file a small claims case or settle a traffic ticket.

To the larger peril of a functional society, cases are being put on ice as resources consolidate and courtrooms evaporate. The administration of civil justice is starting to slow to a crawl. Business attorneys and plaintiffs' lawyers and judges all fear a return to the bad old days when the wait for trial stretched upward of five years. It begs that oft-repeated courthouse truism – justice delayed is justice denied.

Walk the hallways and ride the elevator up each floor of Sacramento County's downtown courthouse and you can't escape the fallout – long lines, crowded corridors, vexing delays at the clerk's office. What's less obvious are the looming delays in court cases, the prospect of justice denied and the insidious impact that has on our society. I talked to one young man waging a family law fight who said he had to wait six hours just to finish filing basic legal papers to move the case along.

No place has been hit harder than Los Angeles County, where rising red ink forced court leaders late last year to announce the closure of 10 regional courthouses. The civil courts, which invariably play second fiddle to the needs of the criminal justice system, have been slammed – and the biggest impact has been to our most vulnerable citizens. Women and children threatened by domestic violence face a longer wait to achieve civil protection. Efforts to help elderly citizens seeking protection from nursing home abuse will be put off as their days dwindle. Poor folks face ever longer and more circuitous bus or trolley trips to seek justice when they've been wronged.

As bad as such factors are in big cities such as Los Angeles, they're often worse in more rural regions, especially those where unemployment remains locked in double-digit percentages. Fresno County has closed seven courthouses. Riverside County has shut down three. The basic act of utilizing the county courthouse is becoming an epic chore.

Our courts' fiscal slowdown also threatens to crimp our reviving business sector. In the Silicon Valley, where civil cases over intellectual property and patent disputes beg for quick judgment to keep digital commerce flowing, court cuts threaten to slow resolution of such disputes. Those delays mean a longer wait for any meaningful settlement negotiations that can help avoid the expense of a trial, hurting the bottom line for business and taxpayers.

It's time for Sacramento lawmakers to stop taking our courts for granted and start supporting a system that can weather the future while dispensing justice as our founders intended.

I applaud the Assembly Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, for holding a hearing on the courts crisis that illuminated the problems to a degree not seen in my memory at the Capitol. Awareness is the first step to a fix, and I hope that Wieckowski's hearing will enlighten more state lawmakers about the problems facing our courts.

While our courts need to continue to modernize and streamline to meet 21st-century realities, state lawmakers and the governor need to do their part to help. Under the 2013-14 California budget blueprint now up for debate, the courts would get just 20 percent of their revenue from the general fund. Another $200 million in court construction money would be siphoned in 2013-14 to offset cuts to everyday operations, in effect robbing the future to pay for the present.

It is shortsighted. The state's independent third branch of government has been enduring third-class status too long. Our court system is a beacon of liberty to the world. Let's not allow it to be broken.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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