California's Improving Economy Comes Too Late for Los Angeles Courts

     Although Governor Jerry Brown's proposed budget spared further cuts to California's courts, it gave them no relief either. Los Angeles Superior Court, the biggest court in the nation, is going ahead with its plans to darken ten courthouses in California's most populous region.
     "We are witnessing the dismantling of the Los Angeles justice system," said Los Angeles Presiding Judge David Wesley. "The sustained decline in state support for the California trial courts evidenced in the Governor's budget proposal will prove crippling to our ability to provide adequate access to justice."
     Despite an improving economy, the court faces an $85 million budget shortfall. The vast court system in Los Angeles County, stretching from Norwalk to Long Beach and from Santa Monica to Pomona, has cut 800 jobs over the past three years and must now go ahead with courthouse closures.
     The court has dipped into its dwindling reserve fund to stave off further job cuts and closures, but those funds will run out in June.
     The courthouses scheduled to be closed are all regional courts: Pomona North, Whittier, Huntington Park, Catalina, San Pedro, Beacon Street, Malibu, West Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and Kenyon Juvenile. They are expected to close by June but there is no specific schedule for the closures.
     The cases heard at those courts will be shunted to other courthouses already burdened with heavy caseloads. The effect is limited access to the courts for the most disenfranchised, said Los Angeles Judge Robert Dukes, who currently hears cases in Pomona.
     "We have significant cases around the county that are currently being handled in our branch courts involving guardianships and conservatorships, people whose parents are incapacitated or people whose parents are incarcerated. And these people are impoverished and now have to go to downtown Los Angeles. Many of these people are self-represented litigants so they are substantially being denied the access to the courts that they deserve," Dukes said.
     Another proposed consolidation scheme is to take all the personal injury cases heard in courthouses throughout Los Angeles County and move them to two courtrooms in downtown Los Angeles, where two judges will handle a caseload of 8,000 personal injury cases each. "So people who have been injured in various manners, like auto accidents, that now have cases pending anywhere from Lancaster to Pomona to Santa Monica and all points in between now have to travel to downtown Los Angeles," Dukes said. "And so that means that the ability to try those cases should will be severely compromised. Many of these people depend on public transit and it becomes all but impossible to get from here to there."
     Litigants in landlord-tenant disputes may also have to travel to six hub courts to have their cases heard. Traffic cases once heard in Pomona have been transferred to a court ten miles away, forcing local law enforcement to abandon their posts to make court appearances.
     Mary Hearn, a spokesperson for Los Angeles Superior Court, said the regional courts were chosen for closure because the downtown courthouses have the capacity to handle larger caseloads, noting that all the regional courthouses being closed only have one to six courtrooms. "The plan to regionalize the district locations and the creation of the 'hub' locations is an effort to mitigate the impact of these closures," she said.
     But Dukes said the loss of local courthouses will harm the poorest and most underserved communities in Los Angeles. "When I was presiding judge we touted ourselves as being the largest neighborhood court in the nation. We were proud we could give access to people throughout our county. We're being forced by the budget problem to reconfigure our court in a way that goes against every grain in my body about what courts should be doing," he said.