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Published on February 8th, 2013 | by RLn Staff

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Justice and Democracy

The Pillaging of the California Superior Courts

By James Preston Allen, Publisher

I am afraid that at this point, most people look upon going to court in somewhat the same way they look at going to church. They only do it when they must, and even then, only under duress.

When you think about it, courts and churches do have some striking similarities. Both have these large symbolic edifices with intimidating rooms of pomp and ritual where attendees sit in rows. One is refrained from approaching the altar, judicial or otherwise, unless invited and the officiators for either God or law all wear ceremonial robes. I could go on, but I think you get the point. Just as we have segregated God from pedestrian access, so too have we separated justice from the common civic experience. It’s about to get worse in our California justice system.

Some of you have heard about the pending threat of San Pedro Courthouse’s closing due to state budget cuts. In a statement issued by Judge David S. Wesley, the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court on Jan. 11, “[the] annual budget shortfall of $195 million for [the] Los Angles Superior Court…confirms the need to move forward with the plan…to close 10 courthouses.”

San Pedro is just one. This is just more of the unintended consequences of balancing the state budget while screwing the taxpayers. Let me explain.

Several years ago, we were sold the idea that consolidating the municipal courts into the superior court system would create a more seamless legal system and contain costs. The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and the unelected Judicial Council who oversee the court’s funding runs this new and better system. Both seem to be perfectly
inept at doing the job.

For instance, in 2003 the AOC implemented a statewide computer project called the California Court Case Management System for an initial estimate of $250 million. That seemed like a reasonable attempt to update the court system. The AOC’s records now show that the full cost of the project is likely to reach a whopping $1.9 billion and the system has still yet to work. However, after objections from critics, the legislature terminated funding after spending $520 million.

The other drain on the Superior Court budget is the exorbitant cost of constructing new courthouses as reported by Judge David R. Lampe in the California Litigation journal as being between $523 and $747 per square foot.

“The ‘poster child’ example of the AOC construction blundering may well be the…Long Beach courthouse… This crucial project is in jeopardy because the AOC failed to plan…for its cost,” Lampe wrote in 2012.

It has later been explained that the private-public investment of this cathedral to justice in Long Beach will cost the State or the court system some $35 million a year for 35 years and is a large part of the reason maintenance issues at all other courts in the state are being deferred. This is because of the confusion as to how this will be paid.

This monument to AOC incompetence is being heralded as, “The first social infrastructure project in the United States procured under the principles of Performance-Based Infrastructure contracting.

Under the infrastructure agreement, the Judicial Council of California (JCC) will own the building, and the Superior Court of Los Angeles County will occupy approximately 80 percent of the space. The JCC will pay LBJP (Long Beach Judicial Partners) an annual, performance-based service fee for 35 years.”

In addition to this, the independent California Legislative Analyst’s Office found that the public-private partnership now building this $490 million Gov. George Deukmejian Courthouse in Long Beach is going to cost $160 million more than it should because cost estimates were flawed.

So the issue of losing just our local courthouse is now mushrooming into the statewide problem of AOC and JCC mismanagement of funds. This, while every citizen of the state knows that the cost of a single traffic violation gets quadrupled with court fees and administrative costs. Where’s all that money going anyway?

Why is it that our candidates for city attorney have not come out to castigate the AOC for its incompetence and campaigned to save our courthouses? Why is it that the newly elected Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey hasn’t protested to the presiding judge of Los Angeles? And why is it that our own Councilman Joe Buscaino and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa haven’t lodged a complaint with the governor about the closure of our local courthouses—an action that will affect every citizen in the city? And why is it that we have not heard hew nor cry from every officer of the court, bailiff, lawyer and judge in the county calling for an official investigation and audit before the ax falls on our local courts?

Moreover, the fundamental issue beyond the fiscal mismanagement and boondoggle of the Long Beach courthouse is that denying access to justice is the equivalent of denying justice to those without local access. Once again we are seeing fiscal policy trumping our very liberty and civil rights. Will California’s justice system survive its own reorganization?

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