Opinion: Keep California’s courts open

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Arnella Sims, a Los Angeles County court reporter and member of the SEIU Local 721 executive board, responds to the Times’ Feb.10 editorial, 'Rebuilding California’s courts.’ If you would like to respond to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed in our Blowback forum, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

Economists, law enforcement officials and political and business leaders all agree: A healthy economy and our civil society depend on having timely, reliable access to our justice system. But you wouldn’t know it reading The Times’ Feb. 10 editorial, ‘Rebuilding California’s courts.’

It’s true that California’s aging courts infrastructure must be upgraded, which is exactly why it makes no sense to lay off 30% of Los Angeles’ court employees, who collect parking tickets, criminal fines and other fees -- in other words, dollars that are necessary to retrofit aging and unsafe courthouses. Nor does it make sense to close courthouses while constructing new halls of justice in an effort to improve public access.

The Administrative Office of the Courts, or AOC -- which oversees court operations statewide -- has already forced closures of Los Angeles County courts one day each month. Anyone who has visited a courthouse knows the impact these closures have had on our system of justice, with longer wait times and more crowded courtrooms. Consequently, children in foster care, victims of domestic violence and other crimes, families trying to adopt children and others who rely on timely resolution of their cases are denied the justice they deserve. Imagine how much worse the impact will be when one-third of court workers and 30% of courtrooms operating now are gone.

Closing about 180 Los Angeles county courtrooms over the next few years, which the budget cuts require, would have a devastating effect on our local economy and impact even those who never set foot in a courtroom. A Dec. 2009 study by a local economic research firm found that if court closures continue, 150,000 people could lose their jobs and the state would suffer from $30 billion in lost economic activity.

Without the certainty that cases will be resolved in a timely manner, businesses that rely on our courts don’t have the assurance they need to operate normally. Litigation delays tie up economic resources. Whether a dispute involves a payment, land development or another matter, the financial and other assets in question cannot be put to use when caseloads pile up and resolutions are delayed. This is the last thing we need with unemployment in Los Angeles County already sky high and our families and businesses still facing economic uncertainty.

With the potentially catastrophic effects of court closures and layoffs on our economy, you’d think that the Judicial Council, the statewide body that oversees courts, and its administrative agency, the AOC, would make solving this problem their top priority.

Unfortunately, the AOC and the Judicial Council have busied themselves with other tasks. An unfinished, $2-billion IT project, for example, has mushroomed over the last several years to more than five times its originally projected cost. There’s no direct oversight of AOC’s budget, no independent audits, no access to its internal records and no whistle-blowing protection for staff. In short, it’s an entity that receives special legal protection by the state to operate outside the realm of public scrutiny and accountability, a status the justices who oversee it fiercely protect. The problem is so bad that in just one year, and with no staffing or budget, an organization of dissident judges who want more accountability for the AOC and Judicial Council has already signed on more than 10% of all state judges.

Keeping our courts open need not come at the expense of making the most pressing improvements to our court facilities. There are sufficient leftover funds in the judiciary budget to keep courts open without tapping into funds slated for construction this year. In addition, the amount of fees the court system collects far exceeds the amount of money immediately needed to proceed with the construction slated for next year. The Legislature can, and must, move swiftly to redirect funds that will protect our economy and public safety by keeping our courts open.