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.
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?