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Published on June 12th, 2014 | by Zamná Ávila

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Court House Closed for Business

By James Preston Allen, Publisher

Tino, the Cambodian-Texan bar owner of Crimsin, stood across the street as the state maintenance workers unbolted the letters which once read, “San Pedro Superior Court.” It was just two Latino guys with a ladder and some tools. By the time we noticed what was occurring, the letters were half gone, leaving only “erior court”– an ominous and foreboding reference to the demise of 100 years of local justice in this southern part of Los Angeles County.

“Can we at least have a few letters from the sign as memorabilia?” we asked.

“No,” was the answer. “They belong to the State of California.” The workmen looked over their shoulders at us like we were either drunk or crazy, continuing their work.

Well, of course, they do but who would miss a few letters? We the people of Sixth Street might like to have some proof of what once was here. The workers continued pulling the letters off the building until they were all gone.

It was back in 1909 that the Los Angeles Consolidation Committee promised the residents of the Harbor Area a “police court” as part of the deal to annex to the City of Los Angeles and there has been a court here in some form or another until June of 2013.

Here, however, are the sad facts– the San Pedro Courthouse along with the Avalon Court on Catalina Island generated enough revenue in terms of fines and fees to more than cover their own costs of operating both courts ($715 million in fiscal year 2011-12). The bulk of that money (54 percent) goes to the state general revenue fund, then the county (37 percent), and lastly the city (6 percent). The Superior Court retains only single-digit amounts (1 percent) of the funds it generates. And, this formula is true throughout the state, which is why the courts are completely underfunded. They retain so little of what they generate in revenues and then expect to get it back from the legislature. It’s kind of like the taxes we pay for schools that go to the state and then get redistributed back to the districts.

The statewide impact on the courts looks like this:

  • Court closures have deprived more than 2 million Californians of access to justice in their local communities.
  • 51 court houses and a total of 205 court rooms have been closed.
  • 30 courts have had to reduce hours at public service counters.
  • 15 courts have had to institute limited court service days (where the majority of court rooms and clerk’s offices are closed).
  • Nearly 4,000 court staff have lost their jobs. Many courts are leaving vacant positions unfilled, and some courts continue to furlough employees. And, on top of this civil cases no longer have court reporters to record their proceedings.

This elimination of access to justice falls more heavily on the poor and minority communities than on those who can afford to wait for justice or who don’t have to depend on public transit to get to court 30 miles from home at 8:30 a.m..

Recently, in the Legal Newsline Richard Burdge,the president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association and owner of The Burdge Law Firm in Los Angeles said, “They’re cutting into the bone, not just the fat” of the court system.

The LegalNewsline article goes on to state, “According to the Judicial Council of California, in the past five years, the court system’s budget was cut by more than $1 billion. In the same period, the court system lost about 65 percent of the funds it receives from the state’s general fund. More than 114 court rooms and 22 court houses were closed, and 30 courts have reduced their hours.”

To put this in perspective, the Superior Court of Los Angeles County maintains the state’s largest court system and it continues to experience some of the deepest funding cuts. And recently, the Superior Court announced its plan to eliminate 511 more positions. As a result, 177 people lost their jobs and 139 people were demoted to previously held positions. An additional 223 people were reassigned to new locations.

This, of course, can be explained by the state’s post-2008 budget crisis or the fact that the end result of Proposition 220, an initiative approved by voters in 1998, consolidating all the various county courts into one statewide system for “greater efficiency” just hasn’t worked.

After the superior court system was merged to create these better efficiencies, the Administrative Office of the Courts spent some $450 million on a computer software system that never worked and was abandoned a few years ago. So our cherished system of local justice was sacrificed to bad management and budget deficits.

Now the Administrative Office of the Courts, which has charge of the 51 court houses statewide has to decide what to do with them. Many people here on Sixth Street and around San Pedro are wondering, “What’s next?”

After hearing for weeks from our local city council office that the matter is “out of their hands,” I decided to call Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe’s office to ask the question. I finally got through to his communications specialist Cheryl Burnett.

“The county is currently exploring all of the options on the former San Pedro Courthouse building with the [Administrative Office of the Courts], including county purchase,” she replied. “No action has been taken, nor has decision on the future use of the property.”

However, on further questioning Burnett did say that the county ordered an independent appraisal on the property, which came back valued at $3.4 million. The county has the first right of refusal if it goes up for sale.

The Administrative Office of the Courts similarly says that, “the courthouse is not being sold and not being auctioned,” at this point. It’s clear that the pressure on the Administrative Office of the Courts  to do something with these vacant court houses is going to mount as time goes on and that they either have to reopen the courts or get rid of them. The question for communities like San Pedro all over the state is, “What do you do with an empty court house?”

I have heard a few bright ideas, but I’d like to hear from you on this issue. We have posted a poll on our website at www.randomlengthsnews.com. Tell us what you think.

 

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