Monday, September 14, 2009

Justice Delayed

I was stunned to see an op-ed piece in this morning's Los Angeles Times written by Ronald M. George, Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. I don't believe I've ever seen a Chief Justice write such a piece, although I suppose it has happened in the past. Still, the subject has to be pretty serious for jurists to take to the editorial pages of a major metropolitan newspaper.

In this case, it certainly is. Justice George addresses in this essay the fact that for the first time in California history, our courts will be closed one day a month because of the serious financial problems the state of California has.

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.


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.


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.

For many facing the loss of a roof over their heads, the irony will quickly turn to tragedy, all because our state government refused to do the right, albeit difficult thing: raise taxes as well as cut some services. That the halls of justice are being shuttered for even one day a month is a shameful episode in our history, one that could have been avoided with a little good sense and good will, something the GOP legislators apparently have little of.

And it isn't just our Superior, Municipal, and Appellate Courts which will be closed. Many of the Administrative Law Courts have also been hit. The one I appear before on a regular basis has had to face even deeper cuts: those courts are closed three days a month, and salaries have been cut up to 15% for all employees, including judges.

Justice is being furloughed, and I still cannot understand why this happened. Neither do most of the rest of the people of this state.

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