Assembly-Line 'Justice'

It's bad enough for a litigant to have to wait about 16 months to argue an appeal in Orange County, but what's worse is the prospect that, when the case finally gets there, justice may never really be done.

That possibility was raised last week in the first "state of the court" report issued by Justice John K. Trotter, presiding judge of the state Court of Appeal division in Santa Ana.

The state court division, which began operations two years ago this month, had a backlog of cases the day its doors opened. Counting new appeals filed and cases sent from other divisions, by the second month of its existence the new division's backlog was up to 353 cases. Then it received 954 more cases in its first year.

In 1984 the division handled 910 decisions, with each of the division's four justices carrying about a 12% higher caseload than the state average. The backlog this year is expected to grow by as many as 200 more cases, putting additional pressure on the justices to rush decisions because once a case is submitted after oral arguments the court has 90 days to hand down a ruling.

Finally, unlike any other division in the state's six appellate court districts that get mostly criminal cases, about 70% of the cases on appeal in Santa Ana are the more complex and time-consuming civil actions.

All this prompted Trotter to note in his report that "at the trial level, justice delayed may be justice denied; but at the appellate level, lack of in-depth consideration of the issues presented is an absence of justice."

That's a critical distinction that state legislators must not ignore. Appellate courts are supposed to correct mistakes, not make them. And they exist to ensure justice, and to make certain that lower courts have upheld legal procedures and the law. That is difficult to do properly in an assembly-line judicial system.

The Santa Ana appellate division thus far seems to have maintained quality while dealing with the quantity. Only 10 of the 910 decisions handed down in 1984 have been appealed to the California Supreme Court. The justices, however, should not be left buried under a backlog that could well lead to "the absence of justice" that Trotter warns against.

Nobody, including Trotter, argues that an increase in the number of cases should automatically lead to an increase in the number of justices. Trotter, in fact, is chairman of a statewide committee of judges and court personnel who are trying to find and install a computer network that would speed up the routine work of searching through case law and documents, writing opinions and referring to previous decisions--work that the appellate court now does the hard way. Trotter also is experimenting in Santa Ana with a procedure to speed the transfer of records from the lower court and with settlement conferences to resolve pending appeals.

If those attempts don't ease the backlog sufficiently, the Legislature and the governor should give the highest priority to appointing whatever number of justices are needed to properly handle the appellate caseload in Santa Ana. It will be a court of law in name only if the system is geared to meeting deadlines rather than dispensing justice.

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