Biggest Court in Nation Closes Courtrooms as CA Cuts Kick In

     LOS ANGELES (CN) - The biggest court in the nation is changing and shrinking, mostly because of California's still idling economy.
     The result for the Los Angeles court system is that more jobs will be lost, trials will be delayed.
     "There is a reality here," said Daniel Buckley, the incoming supervising judge for the court's civil side. "The judges are proud of the service they provide to Los Angeles citizens. They cannot maintain that level of service."
     The judges are ratcheting down a court system that runs from Lancaster to Compton, from Santa Monica to Pomona. By far the biggest court in the nation, it is made up of an ever-changing web of 430 judges and their courtrooms that cover ten million people, one third of all the people living in California.
     The main changes in the court's organization will affect those portions of justice that most resemble mill work, the thousands of personal injury and collection actions that flow through the L.A. courts every month.
     They will now go through a master calendar judge who assigns cases to a courtroom when they are ready for trial, as opposed to going through an individual judge who handles the case from start to finish. The huge number of collection actions in Los Angeles will be bunched into two courthouses where car dealerships are concentrated.
     In terms of the physical plant -- the courthouses themselves -- fully 10 will be "repurposed."
     "We will take judges out of those courthouses," said Buckley. "We will not use those courtrooms for judges being on the bench."
     Courthouses on the west side of town, in Malibu and Beverly Hills, will close. Their courts will be consolidated into the Santa Monica courthouse.
     The courthouse on Catalina Island will close.
     The Hollywood courthouse will be closed and used for storage.
     The closures also affect less posh enclaves, in San Pedro, Whittier and Pomona.
     In terms of human capital, the cuts will inevitably lead to layoffs. "The only way to reduce the budget is to reduce the number of people with us," said Buckley.
     The number of job cuts, however, is not yet worked out. "It's a chicken-egg thing," said the judge. "We've got to have a plan before we know the impacts and the impacts affect the plan."
     In dollars, the court needs to redline at least $56 million out of this year's spending, a number that could go up.
     The money comes out of an overall budget that is currently running at $750 million per year, an amount arrived at through cuts of $100 million over the last couple years.
     The current round of cuts for Los Angeles courts represents their share of a $150 million pro rata cut to all California courts, with Los Angeles home to one third of California's courts. That overall cut is in turn part of an even larger $544 million cut to the state courts in the state budget for July 1, 2013.
     The remaining hundreds of millions will be taken from local savings accounts for the courts and from halting court construction projects throughout the state.
     The shortfall in California's statewide budget is tied directly to falling revenues resulting from the nations biggest economy slipping into neutral. The drop in tax income is combined with a statute requiring a balanced budget that has been enforced by Gov. Jerry Brown. The result has been massive cuts to nearly all categories of state spending.
     A central part of the Los Angeles court system's plan to deal with its big share of those cuts is to assign the biggest category of big money, or general jurisdiction, cases to a master calendar court. That category is the personal injury claims, from slip and falls to car accidents to any of the myriad acts of human foolishness that can result in injury.
     They total 16,000 cases per year in Los Angeles, and they will now be pushed through two, possibly three central courtrooms on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles.
     The vast majority of personal injury cases -- 80-90% -- require very few court hearings, so they are well suited to a master calendar system.
     At the same time, the personal injury cases will no longer be pushed along by an independent calendar judge from start to finish, and, as a result, if service of process and other deadlines are not met, they can slip into limbo.
     "Those cases will not be handled as quickly as they are with the IC system," said Buckley. Lawyers can petition for an independent calendar judge, he added, although the standard to grant that petition has not been set.
     The other huge category of cases in Los Angeles is collection actions, with roughly 80,000 filed per year.
     Of all the small money cases filed in Los Angeles -- those where the claim is under $25,000, that used to be called municipal court cases and are now called limited jurisdiction cases -- a huge majority are collection cases. And half of them go by default with no appearance from the person pursued.
     The result is simply paperwork and signatures flowing through the court system at a very high volume. Those cases will be consolidated into two hubs, in Chatsworth and Norwalk.
     Those locations are tied to one of the unique aspects of both the courts and life in Los Angeles, the prevalence of the car. An inordinately big percentage of the collection cases involve car loans. The Chatsworth and Norwalk courts have lots of car dealerships in the area.
     On the family law side, no courtrooms will close but the judges will also take on civil harassment hearings. "We're looking at giving them more work," said Buckley.
     Probate courts will not be reduced but the cases will all be pulled into the central Stanley Mosque courthouse on Hill, representing a long haul from the far reaches of Los Angeles for the old and the lame.
     The enormous number of eviction actions, 17,000 per year, will be centralized in Pasadena, Long Beach and Santa Monica. As Buckley, pointed out, those who are in difficulty over rent and mortgage payments are also likely to use public transportation and will "have to find a way to get to the court."
     While making all those changes, the judges in Los Angeles still want to hang on to reforms over the last twenty years that sped up the wheels of justice.
     In the 1980s, civil cases were regularly knocking up against a five-year deadline for cases to be heard. But fundamental changes brought the delays down to one year between the time a complaint was filed and the time it was tried.
     The big reform was to switch away from a master calendar system, where lawyers reported ready and a master calendar judge sent the case to another court for trial. Instead, cases were assigned from the start to an independent calendar judge who pushed the case along.
     "The way we got away from the five years was by going to the IC courts," said Buckley. "We became aggressive in controlling the case. We don't want to lose that structure."
     But the independent calendar system will be cut back, and the master calendar system will be reinstated for personal injury actions and small money cases.
     "We are creating a differential case management system," said Buckley. "We will maintain the independent calendar courts for all general jurisdiction cases except personal injury."
     Master calendar cases will be sent to 29 trial courts spread throughout Los Angeles, including 10 in the main courthouse downtown. In addition, an estimated 15% of limited jurisdiction cases are expected to go to those trial courts. The judge noted that a lawyer can petition to move a case from the master calendar system to an IC judge but the standard has not been set yet.
     An inevitable effect of the loss of courtrooms and staff is that the wheels of justice will slow down. In a trend directly tied to earlier budget cuts, trial delays have been creeping up towards 18 months.
     The next round of cuts will likely exacerbate that trend.
     "They say, 'Justice delayed is justice denied,'" said Buckley in an interview. "There is no other way to consider it. Other than criminal cases which have a constitutional deadline, all case types will take longer to get to resolution."
     "We are judges because we want to serve," he concluded. "We want justice to occur. Our ability to do that is hampered by these cuts. We are frustrated by the inability to have cases resolved."