“I’ll see you at trial” is a rejoinder hardly uttered by local lawyers these days. With Los Angeles’ civil courtrooms backlogged, those who can afford to are opting for private hearings overseen by for-hire adjudicators.
Using retired judges and attorneys to resolve civil cases takes some pressure off the courts, but the result is a two-tiered judicial system: a speedy private one for the rich and a protracted public forum for the less advantaged.
"A formula for caseloads and work hours suggests that funding for Los Angeles Superior Court is about 70% of what it needs to be."
In 2012, a fiscal hangover from the Great Recession led the Los Angeles Superior Court — where about a third of cases in California are filed — to shutter 10 county courthouses, close 56 courtrooms and lay off 25% of its staff, including all court reporters in civil courtrooms. Now many attorneys and litigants must travel great distances to prosecute or defend civil cases because their local courthouse closed.
These cutbacks also led to problematic organizational changes. For example, all trial judges in civil cases used to be able to schedule mandatory settlement conferences, but now only a handful of judges are assigned to oversee settlements. The Superior Court also had its own successful mediation program that led to settlements before trial, but that too got closed down.
Statewide, courts are still underfunded by $400 million. A formula for caseloads and work hours suggests that funding for Los Angeles Superior Court is about 70% of what it needs to be. One consequence is that the number of major civil jury trials in Los Angeles has dropped from 478 in 2012 to about 400 last year.
Judges and court staffs are working hard, but courtrooms are backed up. More than 30,000 personal injury cases crying for resolution are not even assigned to a trial court and wait times often stretch to three years. For other types of cases, litigants are waiting twice as long as they did pre-2012 to get to trial.
Equally concerning: There are no “industry standards” governing alternative dispute resolution procedures. Many hearings are held without a court reporter. Most sessions are confidential, so there is no public record. There is no legal precedent set by such cases, and limited right to appeal for those who don’t prevail. Arbitration awards are almost never set aside by courts after a resolution.
Los Angeles’ courts are at a critical juncture. If we want viable public courts, California must, at a minimum, appropriate enough of its budget to reopen more civil courtrooms, add more civil settlement judges, and reinstate the court’s own alternative dispute programs.
A stratified system for haves and have-nots is incompatible with America’s democratic principles. Public trust in our judicial system depends on a confidence that the civil courts are accessible, decision making is transparent, and justice is equally available to all.
Michael L. Stern is a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.