The WebLog of The Kristy Law Firm
The Crisis in Funding California Courts
California’s continuing budget crisis has resulted in drastic cuts to funding of the California Superior Court system. Consumers’ access to justice has suffered.
General-Fund Cuts to the California Court System
I am proud to be a California attorney. Our state has a distinguished tradition of protecting individual and minority rights. Our statutes and appeals-court decisions reflect a mature jurisprudence that is focused on protecting civil rights and freedoms. But our courts are in a deepening crisis. Last month, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court told our state legislature: “I worry that California is on the wrong side of history in funding justice . . . . California, once a leader in civil rights in social justice, is facing a crisis in civil rights.”
The latest recession brought lower tax revenues that devastated the economies of many states, including California’s. As a result, the state has slashed court budgets. California civil courts depend on funding from California’s General Fund. The General Fund is what it sounds like: the pot of money raised through taxes. California courts have little “earmarked” funding to count on; they must compete for funds with many other social-service programs – all worthy and all important.
Here is the reality: funding for California courts has been reduced by $1.1 billion over the last five years, a cut of nearly 65%. This reduction comes at a time when California courts were struggling to modernize court administration – especially, transitioning to electronic court records. Also, new construction was necessary to replace several aging courthouses. The budget crisis has delayed these programs. As a result, local courts limp along with paper-based administration, and aging, unsafe courthouses are still in use.
But the crisis in court funding is impairing consumers’ access to justice in many other ways.
Statewide Reductions in Court Services Affect All of Us
In his March 11, 2013 report to the Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee, the Hon. Barry Goode reported the following results of a survey of California civil-court judges:
- Statewide, 61 courthouses have closed or are in the process of closing
- This represents a total of 175 courtroom closures
- In 20 California counties, court staff are being furloughed an average of one day a month
- Night court has been reduced or eliminated in at least 26 counties
- “Problem-solving” courts have been closed in at least 18 counties
- Small claims hearings have been reduced or eliminated in at least 10 counties
- Self-help services have been reduced in at least 38 counties
- Clerks windows are open fewer hours in at least 31 counties
- Waiting time for child-custody mediations has increased in at least 19 counties
- Court reporters have been eliminated in at least 28 counties
- Domestic-violence temporary restraining orders are not promptly processed in at least 11 counties
- Court staff has been cut by 19.6% since 2007-2008
How the Funding Crisis Hurts Consumers
Most consumers are not directly confronted with the impact of reduced court services. This is simply because most consumers, at this very moment, are not involved in a civil lawsuit. But we expect our courts to be there for us, and for judges to enforce our legal rights. This expectation is in jeopardy.
When consumers are forced to file a lawsuit to fight the bad-faith denial of an insurance claim or the wrongful termination of their job, they require the civil justice system to work for them. But the funding crisis is hurting plaintiffs (consumers who file lawsuits) in the following ways:
People with Urgent Domestic Matters Face New Obstacles to Justice
Fewer courtrooms now issue temporary restraining orders in domestic-violence cases. And fewer courtrooms now hear rental-eviction and child-custody disputes. As a result, people involved in such cases must now plan longer trips to distant courthouses to have their matters heard. Those who depend on public transportation may spend most of a day just to travel to and from the distant courthouse where their matter is heard.
Significantly Increased Costs
In contingency cases, plaintiffs repay the cost of litigation out of their monetary recovery when their case concludes. Civil courts have drastically reduced services and increased fees. As a result, plaintiffs are paying substantially more for court reporters (formerly provided by the courts free of charge) and higher fees for filing the initial complaint and motions. They are also waiting longer for trials and for any eventual monetary recovery. Litigants are being forced to live with uncertainty far longer than before.
Delayed Trial Dates
Trial dates are very important to plaintiffs. They force both sides to prepare for trial by a date certain. They also tend to promote settlements. The court-funding crisis delays trials and forces consumers to wait substantially longer for their cases to conclude.
Los Angeles County personal-injury cases now automatically receive a trial date that is 18 months from the filing of the complaint. (Formerly, litigants could usually expect a trial within a year of filing.) Other types of civil cases are experiencing similar delays. Further, increased case loads on each judge and reduced support-staffing combine to create a pernicious effect: it can now take three months to have a motion heard. Motions early in a case often delay the setting of a trial date. For example, if a defendant files motions challenging the complaint – whatever their merit – it may be several months before the court resolves these challenges. This translates into further delays in setting a trial date.
Cases Tried at Remote Courthouses
Courthouse closures in Los Angeles County have resulted in a draconian new system for personal-injury cases. These cases are now all handled at the downtown-Los Angeles courthouse. But on its trial date, each case is assigned to a trial court based on county-wide courthouse availability. This means that a plaintiff who resides in Long Beach can be assigned to the Chatsworth courthouse for trial!
The Judicial Perspective
In her March 12, 2013 “State of the Judiciary Address,” California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said, “To have your day in court, you need a courtroom.” The Chief Justice continued: “what we once counted on—that courts would be open, and ready, and available to deliver prompt justice—is no longer true in California. Because although California has the distinction of being the largest judiciary in the country, we also have the dubious distinction that our state judicial branch budget has been cut greater and deeper than any other in the United States . . . .”
Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye observed that in other states, about two percent of the General Fund goes to the courts; in California, however, the judicial branch receives about one percent of the General Fund, “about one penny for every dollar of General Fund. I submit to you—in the most diverse state in the union, that a penny on the dollar is insufficient to provide justice.”
California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu addressed the Los Angeles County Bar Association on April 25, 2013. During the luncheon, I asked Justice Liu how the crisis in court funding has affected access to justice and the administration of justice. Justice Liu said that he is very concerned about the impact on civil litigants. He talked of judges with huge caseloads and litigants forced to wait much longer for trial dates. Justice Liu concluded that the forced reduction in court services means that many people with civil disputes will have to find other ways to resolve them. He said that justice “on paper” is now different than justice in reality.
And last week, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge told me that trial delays would eventually make California a less attractive place to do business. Businesses, she predicted, would locate in states with court systems that quickly and efficiently resolve lawsuits.
Court Funding Must Be Restored
The Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC) and the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA) are among leading organizations campaigning to restore court funding. My colleagues and I have personally urged state legislators to reverse at least part of the recent budget cuts. Consumers who recognize the threat to civil justice of the courts’ fiscal crisis can communicate directly with their state legislators. To find out how to contact your State Senator and State Assemblymember, go to this website:
The Affordable Care Act
The Affordable Care Act takes full effect in 2014. In this transition year, consumers face uncertainty when making their insurance choices.
The Affordable Care Act Will Result in Healthier, More Productive Citizens
On March 23, 2010, President Obama instituted historic reform of the American health care system when he signed the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”). Popularly called “ObamaCare,” the ACA will bring health care to millions of Americans who currently cannot afford insurance.
The ACA will accomplish this in several ways. One of the most important is a ban on denying insurance to consumers with preexisting conditions. For consumers who previously could not afford health insurance, the ACA expands Medicaid. It also provides federal subsidies to make health insurance affordable to people with low incomes.
Congress bitterly disputed the passage of affordable healthcare. In its final form, not a single Republican voted for the ACA. Perhaps this reflected the strong disagreement among American citizens about expanding health care coverage. Often overlooked is the boost to our economy the ACA will provide. If, as estimated, some 30 million more Americans gain access to regular health care – including preventive care – a healthier, more productive workforce will be the result. People in poor health have trouble finding and keeping jobs. Many Americans will be receiving proper health care for the first time in their lives. They will no longer depend on the emergency room as their only recourse.
Better health leads to self-sufficiency. Healthy, fit adults can receive the education and training they need to join the workforce. Better health will enable more Americans to leave welfare rolls and earn incomes.
The Transition to 2014: An Uncertain Time
On January 6, 2013, the New York Times reported that health insurers are increasing rates dramatically for small businesses and people not covered by employer health plans. A loophole in the ACA is responsible for double-digit increases to these policy holders. (As always, insurers blame the increases on rising health-care costs. But health care is projected to increase as little as 7.5% in 2013.)
Some states, such as New York, have laws that regulate health insurance rate increases. These states have the power to restrain these outsize increases. Some, like California, lack this power. We will continue to follow the progress of the implementation of the ACA.