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Los Angeles Times

In California, justice takes a day off

The state's chief justice says shutting down the courts one day a
month will be a burden -- and a test of our ability to deal with
fiscal crisis.

By Ronald M. George
September 14, 2009

Starting Sept. 16, the largest court system in the nation will be
closing the doors of courthouses across the state one day each month.
On Wednesday, an estimated 3 million cases will be delayed, 150 jury
trials interrupted and 250 child custody cases unheard. Jails will be
more crowded as arraignment and release dates are postponed; attorneys
and their clients will be inconvenienced, as will jurors; and the
public will experience longer lines, more delays and more crowded
courtrooms.

Wednesday is the first of 10 monthly statewide closure days (uniformly
the third Wednesday of each month) authorized by the Judicial Council,
the constitutionally created body that administers California's court
system. As in many other states, the council was created in the 1920s,
an outgrowth of the Progressive movement, which sought to make
government more efficient, more effective and more accountable. The
mission of the council today remains largely unchanged: to ensure the
consistent, impartial and accessible administration of justice in the
state.

Why then is the council, a body created to protect and increase access
to justice in California, allowing our courts to close for even one
day a month?

California's economic crisis has affected government at all levels and
in nearly every area of service, as well as every aspect of private
life and business. For seven months, Californians have endured the
effects of mandatory furloughs for many state workers, first two days
a month and now three. But courts are not state agencies. And
courthouses -- known earlier in our history as "temples of justice" --
are not just office buildings; they are the repository of our
fundamental commitment to justice for all. The unintended yet
inevitable symbolism of "Closed" signs on institutions that embody our
democratic ideals is yet another tragic indicator of the severity of
California's economic crisis.

The Judicial Council, with express authorization from the Legislature
and the governor, made the difficult decision to close courts one day
a month to avoid even more damaging consequences of reductions in the
judicial branch's budget. This course of action was taken with great
reluctance at an emergency public meeting in July, after substantial
input from local courts and after months of examining alternatives. In
the end, court closures proved to be the only rational option
available to address budget realities while protecting skilled
employees from massive layoffs, maintaining a consistent level of
court services for litigants and their lawyers, and preserving equal
access to justice. Indeed, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County
had already concluded that closures were inevitable and in July became
the first court in the state to implement monthly closures.

At the emergency meeting, I pledged to reduce my own salary to share
in the sacrifice we are asking of the majority of the 21,000 men and
women who work in the California judicial branch. I also encouraged my
judicial colleagues across the state -- more than 1,600 trial judges
and an additional 111 appellate justices -- to join me in voluntarily
waiving their salaries for one day a month or donating a portion of
their salaries to support court operations. I am gratified to report
that a very high percentage of the judges in the state have pledged to
either participate in the waiver or to make private donations to their
respective courts. As The Times recently reported, that figure is
exceptionally high in Los Angeles, where 423 of the 430 judges are
participating in voluntary pay reductions.

At this critical juncture in our state's history, even as the judicial
branch is forced to close courts one day a month, the state court
system itself remains stronger and better able to deliver on the
promise of equal justice under law because of the many changes we have
made in the last several years. In the years I have served as
California's chief justice and chairman of the Judicial Council, the
judicial branch has undergone the most significant structural reforms
in our state's history.

The court reforms of recent years rival those of the Progressive era
and will exceed them in the benefits they provide to the public.
Legislation in 1997 that allowed for statewide funding of the trial
courts addressed historic inequities in the quality of justice
dispensed among California's 58 counties. In 1998, California voters
approved an amendment to the state Constitution to permit the
unification of the 220 Superior and Municipal courts into 58 trial
courts -- one in each county. Unification has allowed greater
flexibility in the use of judicial and staff resources, eliminated
duplicative services and led to the creation of additional services
for the public, such as collaborative justice courts, domestic
violence courts, drug courts and complex litigation courts. Finally,
the Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002 called for the transfer of
responsibility for court facilities from the counties to the state.
This allowed the judicial branch for the first time to assume
responsibility for the buildings in which judges and court staff work
and the public is served, and to do so economically and effectively.
To date, 503 (more than 90%) of our court structures have been
transferred to the state's ownership under judicial branch management.

These historic changes and the growing responsibilities of t he
council have been a means to an end. They have strengthened the
judiciary as a coequal and independent branch of government and
secured the system of checks and balances essential to a robust
democracy. They have addressed budget inequities among trial courts
around the state. They have improved our branch's accountability to
our sister branches of government for the financial appropriations
provided to the courts. And ultimately they have enhanced equal access
to justice and provided a greater degree of accountability.

One irony of the current crisis is that it restricts court services at
a time when the need for them is increasing. The economic downturn has
produced a sharp spike in civil filings, especially in the areas of
contract and unlawful detainer, which includes evictions. This
increase has more than offset a small decline in criminal filings.
What this means to judges and court staff is that we are asking them
to do more with less. What this means for all Californians is that we
must provide adequate resources for courts to resolve disputes in an
orderly manner, or suffer the consequences of being unable to meet the
public's needs.

When I served as a trial judge in Los Angeles during the 1970s and
'80s, California was still in its age of abundance. Today we are in a
far more challenging time. The fiscal crisis in our state will have
profound effects on many aspects of public service, including the
courts, in the next fiscal year and for several years to come. I am
committed to protecting the public from the full impact of further
reductions in court services, and from any decline in the high quality
of justice that so many have worked so long to achieve.

My hope is that as we are tested by this crisis, all of us -- state
government officers, justices and judges, court employees and
Californians everywhere -- will join together in meeting these
challenges. How we proceed will tell us a great deal about the
prospects for our state in the years ahead.

Ronald M. George is chief justice of California and chairman of the
state Judicial Council.

Copyright 2009, The Los Angeles Times