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Bar Assn. to Sue State Over Lack of Judges in the County

Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Bar Assn., saying the courts are so overburdened that residents are being deprived of access to justice, has decided to sue the state and possibly the county to get more judges and courtrooms here.

The lawsuit, now being drafted, is designed to force government officials to funnel more money into a court system that is becoming increasingly clogged with civil cases. Nearly 20,000 lawsuits are pending in Orange County Superior Court.

Word of the lawsuit was welcomed by Phillip E. Cox, presiding judge of Orange County Superior Court, who said it would be “in the best interests of the court.” The backlog of cases is “a fact,” Cox said.

Criminal Cases Have Priority

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Under state law, criminal cases generally have priority over civil lawsuits when there is a shortage of courtrooms.

“It’s my belief that we make our courts available for criminals,” Cox said. “Why can’t we make them available for our law-abiding citizens who build our courtrooms and pay the taxes? It’s just so very, very unfair to the citizens of Orange County.”

There are 54 Superior Court judges in Orange County. Five more are authorized but not yet selected. Judges continually struggle to keep up with the growing civil docket in Superior Court, and litigants in civil cases often wait 5 years before getting to trial.

“The cases are accumulating again rapidly, and the length of time to trial is still very substantial,” said Vernon Hunt, former president of the Orange County Bar Assn.

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“This is of great concern to the injured person who is entitled to and in need of compensation, who may not be able to get it for 4 or 5 years,” Hunt said.

The complicated financing system for the courts involves both local and state funds. New judgeships must be created by the Legislature and approved by the governor, and in this decade Orange County has never received the number of judges recommended by the state Judicial Council.

Nearly 2 years ago, for instance, the council reported that 18 new Superior Court judges were needed in Orange County--a 33% increase in the size of the court.

Judges have turned to other devices, such as emphasizing out-of-court settlements, to cut the backlog of cases. And in one new program, four judges are focusing on expediting business lawsuits.

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Litigation Expanding

But such tactics have failed to keep up with the rapidly expanding litigation spawned by a growing economy and increasing population. There are now 19,900 non-criminal cases pending in the court, said L. Patrick Hearn, assistant executive officer for the Superior Court. Of those, 6,800 are ready for trial.

More than 18 months have passed since the Judicial Council recommendation of 18 more judges, Hearn noted. “I don’t know how many we need now, maybe as many as 30,” he said.

Hunt pointed to the complex court funding process as one reason for the lack of judges.

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“There have been repeated requests for additional judges,” Hunt said. “In 1986, we asked the Board (of Supervisors) for 15. They authorized 12. Then we got into the political discussions (in Sacramento) and ended up with five. That’s woefully inadequate.”

Ed Connor, the attorney who has agreed to handle the lawsuit without pay, said other counties are getting a far greater share of judicial resources--which amount to just 2% of the state budget--than Orange County.

L.A., Orange Counties

“There seem to be two counties in the state that aren’t receiving their piece of the pie, and those are Orange County and Los Angeles,” Connor said. “For example, over the past 3 years San Diego has received a total of 28 new judgeships. During that same 3-year period, Orange County received only eight. It’s our perception that there is no perceivable difference in the growth of the caseloads of these respective counties.

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“We don’t see parity at work here. And that essentially forms the basis for the lawsuit.”

Among eight counties that have recently sought more judges, Connor said, only Los Angeles and Orange counties received less than 50% of their requests. He noted that a year ago the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. filed a lawsuit in federal court with a similar objective. The case is pending.

Although the issues are still being researched, Connor said, the suit might be widened to include the state Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana, which he contended also lacks sufficient resources.

At bottom, the issue is one of fairness, Connor said.

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“These (state) resources should be apportioned equally among the counties,” Connor said. “We all have legitimate needs and should be dealt with equally.”


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