In a frank and hard-hitting self-study, court officials have discovered an alarming lack of public confidence in the Los Angeles County judicial system.
With less than a fifth of the people in a poll saying that they are strongly confident in the court system, observers described the study by USC, the L.A. County Bar Assn. and the Superior Courts as a “wake-up call” for leaders to find out the cause of the discontent and correct it.
“Fundamental changes . . . will be vital to maintaining the public’s trust and confidence,” a summary of the report said.
Failure to arrest the deterioration could prompt public demands for legislative action restricting judges’ sentencing discretion and reduce the judiciary’s ability to compete for funding from the Legislature, experts said. Ultimately, loss of public confidence could undermine the court’s crucial societal roles as the final arbiter of disputes and as the protector of public safety.
“If they don’t have confidence in the system, they could start resolving their disputes outside the judicial system, including taking matters into their own hands,” said Presiding Judge Robert W. Parkin.
Although saying that he was not completely surprised at poll and survey results, Parkin added that he found it alarming that so few people expressed strong confidence in the Los Angeles County Superior Courts.
The study found that judges’ overall positive opinion of the courts’ performance is vastly at odds with the opinions of lawyers, law enforcement officers, former jurors and their own court staff.
The report said presiding judges do not have enough power to supervise the operations of the courts, and that the court should “step up its efforts” to become more efficient, easier to use, courteous to the public and technologically advanced.
It called for reform in the court’s governing structure and in a “judicial culture” characterized by resistance to change.
Without such changes, judges will not be able to exercise the leadership needed to improve the courts and restore public trust, the report said.
The study, to be released this morning, was funded by foundation grants. It grew out of a court improvement project started in 1996 by the three groups. Researchers relied on a poll of Los Angeles County residents, a survey of court insiders and a study of issues outlined by people who use the courts, including judges, lawyers, former jurors and law enforcement officers.
The study proposes a schedule for next year for addressing some of the problems. The schedule calls for eliminating the many rules that differ from judge to judge, running a pilot program to test jury service reforms and forming a task force to study the governing system.
Experts said the mere fact that the court authorized such a study was a significant acknowledgment that the judicial system is not the sole domain of judges.
“Everybody knew we had problems,” said Laurie Levenson, associate dean of Loyola Law School. “But this is an important first step, showing the court system is receptive to criticism and acknowledging that we all have a stake.”
Nevertheless, the problems highlighted in the report are nothing new.
Criminal defense lawyers complain, as they have in the past, that the courts do not make the Sheriff’s Department give them enough time to consult with clients privately and that they don’t get a fair shake during pretrial exchanges of information with prosecutors.
Civil lawyers say that judges and court staff are discourteous and disrespectful toward their clients, and that the unpaid arbitrators and mediators do not do a good job in resolving disputes outside of court.
Law enforcement complains that the best lawyers are never selected to judgeships and that court cases take too long.
And jurors complain that they have to do too much waiting.
In surveying nearly 1,400 members of those groups, the researchers found that law enforcement officers and former jurors have the lowest overall opinion of the courts. One of every three officers said they had a “negative or very negative opinion;” only one in four had positive views.
More than a quarter of the former jurors had negative views. Less than a third expressed positive opinions.
The rest of the officers and jurors said they were “neutral.”
Contrasting sharply and demonstrating their isolation, the survey of judges found that nearly nine of every 10 said they held a positive view of the court system.
The public’s opinion of the L.A. courts mirrored the lukewarm views of the professionals and former jurors who are involved in the system. A poll done for the study by the Field Institute found that only 17% of 279 Los Angeles adults said they had much confidence in the courts. In contrast, 22% said they have very little confidence in them.
Court officials took solace in the fact that 52% had at least “some” confidence in the courts. But even that finding reflects a “lukewarm” attitude, said Bryan Borys, the USC associate professor who compiled the study.
“It was an eye-opener,” said Lee Smalley Edmon, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn.
Mike Judge, who, as Los Angeles County public defender, represents indigent criminal defendants, called the public’s attitude “disturbing,” and said it is partly the result of “high-profile, lurid trials” that don’t accurately reflect what usually occurs in the courtroom, and to “unprincipled” attacks on the judiciary by politicians trying to exploit people’s fear of crime.
Such attacks help explain why judges’ positive views of the court contrast so sharply with everyone else’s, he said.
“There’s a natural tendency to circle the wagons and look inward, which makes it more difficult to recognize legitimate criticism,” Judge said.
But Judge and others agree that lawyers and law enforcement officers who are directly subject to a judge’s power simply do not want to risk antagonizing them.
“Judges simply don’t get criticism,” said Borys, the associate professor.
Parkin, the presiding judge, said the divergent views between judges and other court insiders probably is not unlike the usual differences that exist between employees and employers.
Parkin said the lack of public confidence is a serious matter, and that follow-up study planned for next year will seek explanations.
“It’s a wake-up call,” he said. “We’re not as good as we think we are in some areas in the eyes of the public, and we have to pay attention.
“They pay our salaries.”