Charging that a growing backlog of lawsuits has created a “failure of justice” in local courts, the Orange County Bar Assn. sued the state Tuesday to try to force funding for more trial and appellate judges.
The state’s failure to establish the needed judicial positions and fill existing vacancies, bar officials argued, has created average delays of 3 years in civil disputes and backlogs of thousands of cases and has had a “chilling” effect in dissuading local residents from seeking out the courts for relief.
The bar association’s decision to turn to the courts in an effort to gain new judges, ordered by the group’s leadership in January, reflects growing frustration locally over the failure to remedy the problem through legislative means.
“It appears that the Orange County Bar is seeking to achieve through the courts system what it has failed to achieve through the state Legislature,” said Tom Beermann, an aide to Gov. George Deukmejian, who was named a defendant in the suit.
Points to Lobbying Effort
If county officials are unhappy with the judgeships they have been granted, Deukmejian’s aide said, “they should have done a better job of lobbying the Legislature.”
In its lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, bar association officials claimed that, among other counties in the state, only Los Angeles has fared worse than Orange County in gaining the judges that it needs to keep its courts running.
The Los Angeles County Bar Assn., also frustrated by a lack of judges, sued the state in November, 1987, based on similar allegations. A judge refused motions by the state to throw the suit out, and it is still pending in federal court.
Both lawsuits challenge as unconstitutional a state rule limiting the number of judges that counties are allowed. With an average of more than 7,000 civil cases ready for trial at any time, local lawmakers and officials in the legal community have long lobbied Sacramento to offer funding for more judges for both Superior Court and the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana.
The county did join in a state plan last year to overhaul the judicial-financing system, a plan that provides Orange County with five more Superior Court positions atop the existing 54. But local officials point out that these positions remain vacant and, even if filled, are not enough.
“We’re suffering,” Orange County Bar president Michael H. Gazin said in an interview, “and our efforts to fix the problem through the Legislature have fallen on deaf ears.
“There is the ability to fund these judgeships. It’s just a question of priorities, and Orange County has been low on the totem pole. I don’t know why.”
State Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) thinks that she knows the answer and lays the blame at the doorstep of the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which she says has sought to stifle the ability of the Republican governor to appoint new judges.
“Year after year, Orange County has been rejected (by the Legislature) in trying to get new judges,” she said in an interview. “Hopefully, with this lawsuit can come a growing awareness of this crisis and pressure the Legislature to do something about it.”
State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), also named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with Deukmejian and other state officials, had not seen the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon and had no comment. Aides with the Assembly Judiciary Comment, influential in determining final funding levels for judicial programs, were also unavailable for comment.
Claim Modest Requests
Even as state officials maintain that the state’s fiscal conditions have constrained new judicial appointments, county officials insist that they have been relatively modest in their requests.
Indeed, they point out that the 15 new Superior Court positions requested last year by the County Board of Supervisors actually fell short of the 18 recommended by the state’s Judicial Council, an advisory body that analyzes judicial needs.
“The backlog is growing, and we need more judges. It’s that simple,” Gazin of the bar association said.
The effect goes beyond the thousands of cases that are stalled in the courts awaiting trial, the bar association’s lawsuit claims. “In turn, these delays have caused the very failure of justice officially decried by the Legislature and have made it impossible to provide an accessible judicial system in Orange County,” the lawsuit said.
Gazin, in dramatizing the problem, said that when he tells clients about the potential delays that await them in their civil disputes, “they look at you and their eyes roll back. The clients are put off and concerned by the delays and the costs that go along with it, and often they just end up deciding it’s not worth it.”
ASKED FOR/APPROVED The Orange County Bar Assn. contends that the county is getting short shrift in state funding for judge positions, creating a backlog of thousands of stalled cases in the local courts. The bar says the county’s record for getting state approval for additional Superior Court judges compares poorly to all but one of the other seven counties that have sought new positions fr
New Superior Court Judges Sought/Granted County by State % Contra Costa 2/2 100 Los Angeles 84/14 17 Orange 15/5 33 Sacramento 4/3 75 San Bernardino 6/3 50 San Diego 18/13 72 San Mateo 2/1 50 Santa Clara 17/13 76
Source: Orange County Bar Assn.