Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ten courthouses

Although the budget crisis in California has lasted for years, the state court system has until now managed to avoid the worst possible scenarios. Courts have survived these hard times by depleting their reserves and diverting their capital budgets for operations. Having exhausted those strategies, and with no prospect of restoration of full funding in sight, the courts have finally had to grapple with some huge funding shortfalls. This month, the Los Angeles County Court system announced their plan to deal with budget shortfalls by closing 10 regional courthouses, including the branch courthouses in Beverly Hills, Malibu, Pomona, and Whittier. These facilities may end up staying open only for such purposes as paying traffic tickets. Their courtrooms will be shuttered.

This news is tragic, because it means increased delays throughout the system, particularly for civil cases, dramatically reduced staffing, and increased costs. It also marks the end of a concept of neighborhood justice that all these branch courthouses represented. In a far-flung county as large as Los Angeles, that concept spared a lot of people a lot of long trips downtown. Now litigants will have to adjust to a more centralized, more crowded, and much slower system.

For my practice, the solution of closing 10 regional courthouses was probably the best of all possible bad worlds. I've never been much of a believer in scattered regional courthouses, and I always file downtown, and usually end up defending cases filed downtown, even when the parties are from the West Side or the Valley. One reason is that I have officed downtown for more than 20 years, and like being able to walk to court. I also probably have some big city biases against regional courts, even though the clerks in those places are usually more friendly than they are downtown, and the judges are just as good. So I'm happy I won't ever have to drive to Pomona or Beverly Hills for court appearances anymore. (If only they would also close Van Nuys and Santa Monica!) On the other hand, I'm not going to be happy about the increased delays we can expect downtown.

Courthouses function as gateways as well as destinations. Litigants commonly think of the courthouse as the place that will decide their dispute. But the courthouse might be better thought of as an intake system for disputes. Resolution of the dispute may be farmed out to an arbitrator or a mediator, or parties may reach a resolution by their own devices. Very few civil cases end by trial. If we think of the courts more as an intake system than as a final destination, I wonder how efficient it is going to prove to force litigants to start their journeys in the massive downtown courthouse. Faced with that prospect, will litigants devise other ways to commence the process?

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