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Hurry Up and Wait: Familiar Game for O.C. Civil Claimants

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eileen Walsh spent three days languishing in the hallway outside Department 23 in Orange County Superior Court last week, waiting for word on whether her 18-month-old lawsuit against the county would start as scheduled.

Word came late on the third day, but it wasn’t what Walsh, who is suing the county for sexual harassment and breach of contract, wanted to hear. No courtroom was available.

Her trial date was postponed to Nov. 10.

Hurry up and wait is an everyday aggravation in Orange County’s civil court system, where judges on any given day have between four and 10 cases set for trial.

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Six months ago, county officials asked the state for 16 new judgeships to bolster the county’s pool of 61 Superior Court judges, 13 commissioners and four referees. A special judicial panel subsequently urged approval of 40 new judges statewide; of those, four would go to Orange County.

Despite the request, no new judgeships are being considered so far in the 1997-98 state budget being negotiated by a legislative conference committee in Sacramento.

Last year was the first time in nine years that new judgeships were approved by the Legislature and governor. Statewide, 21 new judges were appointed out of 61 requested. Orange County got two.

“It’s been really bad,” Superior Court Executive Officer Alan Slater said. “Every day, we’re trying to clear every judicial resource we have. We’re doing better than we did in years past when it took four years to get to trial. But it’s still frustrating.”

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Because criminal defendants have a right to a speedy trial and their cases must be resolved within time limits specified by state law, civil cases take a back seat. Slater said the county has devised a system giving preference to the oldest civil cases, when multiple civil trials are scheduled to begin at the same time.

Orange County is far from unique in this regard.

Anthony Williams, legislative advocate for the California Judicial Council, says it’s a problem experienced statewide. He said the courts are being encouraged to find more efficient ways to use court resources, like consolidating courtrooms, but even squeezing the most out of those resources isn’t enough.

“The picture statewide is pretty dim,” Williams said Friday from Sacramento, where a legislative conference committee on the budget again tabled the request for new judges.

“The council has looked at a number of different options to make courts more efficient but, even in light of reforms, these new judgeships are still needed,” Williams said.

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The perpetual waiting game for courtrooms creates special hardships for civil plaintiffs, said Santa Ana attorney Wylie A. Aitken. They often don’t have the resources to withstand lengthy continuances compared to insurance companies or institutional respondents.

“You’re ready, and they put you in the starting gate, then they cancel the race and send you home,” Aitken said. “It’s terribly frustrating, and it’s terribly expensive.”

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The courtroom crunch comes at the same time the number of civil filings has dropped, plummeting as much as half over the past three years.

Slater said the statistics are misleading because they reflect a plunge in small personal-injury and insurance cases that were being filed as place-holders to satisfy statutory time limits, but which were settled or dismissed without significant court resources.

What’s left are more complex civil suits often resulting in more and longer trials requiring more court and judge time, and resulting in fewer settlements, Slater said.

Court statistics reflect a system moving its cases through well before the five-year statutory deadline but still well below state standards.

In Orange County, 45% of civil cases were disposed of within 12 months in the 1995-96 fiscal year, compared to a statewide average of 52%, according to the most recent Judicial Council figures available. The Council has adopted state standards saying that all cases should be resolved within two years. But only two-thirds of Orange County’s cases met that time limit for 1995-96. A full one-third of cases took longer than two years for resolution.

While the county continues its call for more judges, other inter-court juggling has exacerbated the scheduling delays, Slater said. Two judgeships have been vacant for several months because of retirements. One judge was moved last month to Juvenile Court to help handle a surge in the number of juvenile dependency filings involving abused or abandoned children.

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Whatever the reasons, the three-day purgatory didn’t help Walsh’s attorney, Steve Kaplan, who drove from Los Angeles to Santa Ana daily, doing business by phone as he fidgeted in the courthouse hallway.

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He said there should be a better system than holding attorneys and clients hostage for an open courtroom, including more innovative approaches like teleconferencing certain court hearings to save time and money.

“I was very frustrated, and I’m sure anyone going through it is frustrated too,” Kaplan said. “My guess is that the court and the judges aren’t any happier than we are. I would hope the courts would think of more efficient ways of dealing with the problem.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Trying Times

According to standards adopted by the state’s judiciary, a majority of civil cases should be resolved within the first year of filing, and all cases should be disposed of within two years. But among the state’s most populous counties, only San Diego came close to meeting those standards in 1995-96:

Disposition:

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0-12 13-18 19-24 25 months County months months months or more Los Angeles 43% 64% 76% 24% Orange 45 61 67 33 San Diego 72 93 97 3 Santa Clara 56 75 86 14 Riverside 58 76 87 13 Sacramento 50 77 90 10 California average 52 71 80 20

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Source: California Judicial Council; Researched by JEAN O. PASCO / For The Times


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