Courtroom Closures Bring State Budget Crisis to Local Communities
by Stephan Mihalovits
The upcoming wave of courtroom closures across southern California is serious – 24 civil courtrooms, 24 criminal courtrooms, an innovative juvenile court, and others will go dark. Many experienced court employees will lose their jobs.
One might think these cuts represent the court system’s fair share in a time of red ink. But it seems foolish to punish an area of government that has continually embraced efficiency in the pursuit of justice and public service.
It is also foolish (and perhaps against the spirit of the law) to, at once command the courts to reduce delay, while at the same time, reduce the courts’ resources. Although trial court delay has been a significant problem in the past, problems will become even more evident as resources are stripped bare.
True enough, courts are not revenue generators, they only use resources.
But the value of the judicial branch is not measurable by the resources it uses. The value of the court system is in providing residents with a trustworthy venue for the efficient and competent administration of justice.
Court Closures Go Against the Grain. . .and the Law?
The judicial branch in California has historically held itself accountable. In 1986, the Trial Court Delay Reduction Act became law, and courts embraced efforts to reduce delays.
“The Trial Court Delay Reduction Act mandates trial courts to resolve matters before them as expeditiously as possible, in recognition that delay reduces the chance that justice will in fact be done…” Moyal v. Lanphear (1989).
Delay reduction measures are based on the important principle that “litigation from commencement to resolution, should require only that time reasonably necessary for pleadings, discovery, preparation, and court events… any additional elapsed time is delay and should be eliminated.” Govt. Code. § 68603(a).
The judicial branch connects efficiency with its mission of justice and public service. In a 2009 report advocating more delay reduction measures through law, the Judicial Council recognized, “accountability is more than a commitment between co-equal branches of government: it is a necessary counterpart to judicial independence and represents an obligation of the judicial branch to the people of California.” Thus, an undue reduction in court resources directly impacts the courts’ obligation to serve the state’s residents.
Drastic budget cuts to the system are detrimental to the courts’ mission. Courts will not be able to administer justice efficiently when resources are taken away. Delay will become more likely and more common.
One last lament concerns the abandonment of an innovative court for the resolution of juvenile problems that are not appropriate for the more serious detention system. Parents and judicial officers seek to deter young people from choices that may lead to prison.
Talk about pound foolish. A young person who may have been deterred by innovative thinking in dispute resolution might now choose a different path. Without prevention, that young person may end up in state prison, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands in preventable costs.
It is short-sighted to ignore the immense value our state enjoys from having a trusted forum for the lawful resolution of disputes. As the court system is asked to carry an even heavier load, let’s hope Sacramento will see the value of an adequately-funded judicial branch.