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Courts Divided by Chavez Holiday

Times Staff Writer

Thousands of Los Angeles County prosecutors, public defenders and their clerks will report for work today, even though the doors to every courtroom and filing office will be locked.

That’s because it’s Cesar Chavez Day, a holiday for the judges and commissioners in the state court system but a regular workday for lawyers and others on the county’s payroll.

“We still have plenty of work to do,” said Joe Scott, spokesman for the district attorney’s office.

Bob Kalunian, spokesman for the public defender’s office, said it was “not a county holiday. The vast majority plan on coming to work.”

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But how long will they stay?

With the doors at the county’s 583 courtrooms closed, with no hearings, trials or other pressing court matters to attend to, the county’s 3,000 or so prosecutors, public defenders and support staff may have other priorities.

“It’s going to be very hard to find somebody -- public defenders or D.A.s -- here at 3 o’clock,” predicted Bobby Grace, a longtime prosecutor. “You can spend a little more time with your family. Pick up the kids early. Go to the gym. See a movie.”

On Lincoln’s Birthday last month, the last time judges had a holiday but prosecutors and public defenders did not, some offices saw few people return from lunch.

“I know one D.A.'s office, everyone went out for manicures and pedicures,” said an attorney who asked not to be identified for fear of job repercussions or ostracism by colleagues. “Some people will have work to do. The majority of people will have nothing to do.”

There was a time when judges, prosecutors and public defenders shared the same holidays because they all had the same employer: the county.

But the work and leisure schedules at the county’s 52 courthouses began to diverge after 2000, when judges voted to bring local courts under the umbrella of the state court system.

Now, the county’s 549 judges and commissioners and 5,000 additional state court employees -- with salaries paid by the state -- observe 13 state holidays, including Lincoln’s Birthday and Cesar Chavez Day.

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County employees have 11, not observing the Lincoln and Chavez days.

For county employees, Cesar Chavez Day is a “working holiday,” said Roxane Marquez, spokeswoman for Supervisor Gloria Molina, who introduced the measure a few years ago to permit people to take a paid day off any day this week to do volunteer work in honor of the late labor leader.

To further confuse things, the city attorney’s office already had Cesar Chavez Day as a holiday on Monday.

“It’s just kind of silly,” said Deputy Public Defender Tamar Toister. “If it’s a court holiday, why not just make it a holiday for everybody?”

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Some think there shouldn’t be a holiday for anyone today.

“You don’t have to take a day off to honor somebody,” said Jon Coupal, president of the nonprofit Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. At the very least, he said, “in the interest of taxpayers, it would be better if there were coordination between these different government entities.”

During what some gleefully call “court-free days,” the atmosphere at prosecutors’ and public defender’s offices is laid-back, workers say. People tend to wander in late. Instead of suits, ties, pantyhose and heels, lawyers show up in T-shirts, jeans and even sandals.

Some departments -- such as the sheriff’s, which provides bailiffs and court security -- schedule training for employees.

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But others, with tacit approval from supervisors, treat the day as a respite from the usual grind. After all, lawyers in trials sometimes work evenings and weekends with no overtime pay.

“It’s a good day to catch up, because you don’t have to go to court,” said Dmitry Gorin, a prosecutor who plans to spend the day preparing for two murder trials. “I find it a productive day.”

For the record, Toister -- the public defender -- said she intended to spend the day visiting clients in jail. Prosecutor Grace said he planned to work until at least 4.

It’s really up to the individual as to how to spend their day, others say.

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“If you want to work, you can. And if you don’t, you don’t have to,” said another longtime lawyer, who asked not to be identified. “People come in late, take long lunches, take off early. They sit around and shoot the bull. Nobody punishes you. It’s Civil Service.”


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