Court Closures Not Feds’ Business, 9th Cir. Finds

     PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge was right not to interfere in a case challenging Los Angeles County Superior Court’s consolidation of eviction cases into “hub” courts, the Ninth Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     Los Angeles County Superior Court – the largest trial court in the country – undertook the consolidation plan after it lost $110 million in state funding between 2008 and 2012 and another $56 million in 2013, according to the panel’s opinion.
     The court formerly prided itself on its “neighborhood court” model, with many courthouses located throughout the county to serve its more than 10 million residents, but California’s financial troubles forced the county to shutter many of those courthouses.
     As part of the plan for its consolidation, the court centralized unlawful detainer cases from 26 neighborhood courthouses to five hub courts across the county in Long Beach, Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena and Lancaster.
     Four nonprofit organizations and two individuals sued California in March 2013, claiming that the consolidation into hub courts disproportionately impacted poor, disabled and minority residents that rely on public transportation to get to court.
     A federal judge dismissed the case on grounds of federal abstention, and the Ninth Circuit’s three-judge panel upheld the court’s decision.
     In the panel’s 13-page opinion, Circuit Judge Jacqueline Nguyen referred to the precedent case O’Shea v. Littleton, in which the Circuit previously found that a federal court “should be very reluctant to grant relief that would entail heavy federal interference in such sensitive state activities as administration of the judicial system.”
     She wrote that to reach the same conclusion as the district court in this case, “we need look no further than the breadth of plaintiffs’ requested relief.”
     The plaintiffs, Nguyen said, seek an injunction preventing Los Angeles County Superior Court from eliminating “even a single courthouse that, prior to the fiscal crisis, heard unlawful detainer actions,” as well as an order requiring the county court to hold public meetings before planning any future unlawful detainer courtroom closures.
     In short, Nguyen said, the plaintiffs seek precisely the sort of “heavy interference” that O’Shea sought to prevent.
     “We realize that plaintiffs raise serious access to justice concerns,” she wrote. “But there is no dispute that years of budget cuts have taken their toll and, by 2013, LASC’s prized neighborhood court model was unsustainable.”
     She also held that the consolidation plan did not only target unlawful detainer cases but involved numerous other components, such as closures of entire courthouses and substantial layoffs.
     “Out of respect for the independence of state judiciaries, a federal court cannot substitute its judgment for LASC’s resource allocation under these circumstances,” she wrote.
     Neither side could be reached for comment on Tuesday morning.

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