Viewpoints

California’s court system is failing us, and it would be relatively cheap to fix it

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, in a speech this year, warned that “inadequate funding and chronic underfunding of the courts is just one way a justice system can become unjust.”
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, in a speech this year, warned that “inadequate funding and chronic underfunding of the courts is just one way a justice system can become unjust.” Associated Press

Dig deep enough into California’s biggest problems, and you’ll hit upon a common villain: our court system.

California’s housing shortage, its poverty, its poor business climate, and its failing infrastructure all are explained in part by the failings of our underfunded, delay-prone courts. But in public narratives of what’s wrong with the state, we have mostly let the courts dodge responsibility for their many crimes against California’s future.

Why? Our courts have been broken for so long that we’ve stopped expecting them to work. And so we’ve become accustomed to blaming others – regulators, politicians, unions, business, or, lately, President Donald Trump – for our collective failure to build a state that meets its population’s needs.

But the biggest reason why we’ve allowed the courts to skate responsibility involves a public underestimation of their importance. While the courts account for a small fraction of the state workforce and budget, they have an outsized impact, serving as a foundation – albeit a faulty one – for our state’s economy and government.

Too often, Californians blame laws – like CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act – for costly delays in building housing or infrastructure, when we should blame the courts, argued Emile Haddad, the chairman and CEO of FivePoint, the largest developer of mixed-use communities in coastal California, at a recent Chapman University conference.

“I’m one of those probably odd developers who say they love CEQA,” he said, because it protects neighborhoods and adds to the quality of life. The real problem, he said, is “the entire legal system.” He recounted a project that got local government approval in 2003, but still hasn’t happened, as his company is now litigating the project’s 30th lawsuit.

Such legal delays bear a heavy responsibility for our historic housing shortage and add to housing costs that are more than twice the national average. In turn, costlier housing is a huge factor in California’s highest-in-the-nation poverty rate and its high rate of homelessness.

The same court-related delays also plague transportation and water projects, and new businesses. And while Californians love to mock our years-behind-schedule high-speed rail project, most of the project’s delays involve the courts.

The delays will likely worsen, as courts are being asked to do more with less. New state policies on sentencing and marijuana have created new questions and petitions that boost court workloads. And the courts still haven’t recovered from Great Recession cuts that shuttered more than 50 courthouses and 200 courtrooms. Court officers in 49 of 58 counties warned in a February letter to Gov. Jerry Brown that without more money in this year’s budget, they’ll need to cut existing levels of service.

“Inadequate funding and chronic underfunding of the courts is just one way a justice system can become unjust,” warned California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in a speech this year.

I recently walked three blocks from my office to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Amid the glitter of new urban development, the court building is an eyesore, with visible scars on its walls and roof. Inside, nothing – from bathrooms to Wi-Fi – works well. A lawyer acquaintance who took me around quoted Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” a 19th-century novel about the delays of England’s Court of Chancery.

Broken courts, Dickens wrote, promote a crippling fatalism throughout a society, “a loose belief that if the world go wrong, it was, in some off-hand manner, never meant to go right.”

It’s way past time for California to escape this Dickensian muck. Yes, fixing our court system – it should be the country’s fastest and most efficient – would be challenging politically. But it also would be relatively cheap, just a couple billion more dollars a year in a state with a $150 billion budget and a $2.5 trillion economy.

This budget season, let’s stop our courts from committing more crimes against California’s future.

Joe Mathews writes the weekly Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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