By Brad Weinreb
“Without public confidence, the judicial branch could not function.” — New York Court of Appeals decision in 2003 regarding judicial conduct
Public confidence in our judicial system requires it have adequate funding and properly function. When budget cuts create delays and result in the elimination of services, those with personal or business disputes before our San Diego Superior Court have little confidence in our judicial system and may feel little recourse. As the San Diego County Bar Association found in its 2013 State of the Judiciary in San Diego County report, “If an individual or business is denied prompt access to their ‘day in court,’ or if justice is delayed, then ultimately, the citizens and businesses in our community suffer together.”
Over the last several years California’s judicial budget has been reduced by about 30 percent. The superior court has reduced operating expenses while struggling to prioritize criminal, juvenile, dependency and family law matters. As the bar association report noted, “Meaningful access to justice should not be the concern of the legal community alone.” Several observations from this report show how budget cuts and financial difficulties impacted our courts. First, the operational effects:
• There has been about a 15 percent reduction in the number of courtrooms, a projected 470 vacancies among permanent staff, and the number of court reporters has been reduced by 38 percent, which means preserving a record for appeal is now a greater cost borne by the parties.
• Civil functions in South and East County have been consolidated to downtown courts, which means litigants and witnesses now have to travel downtown. In addition to the inconvenience factor, this impacts operation of the court itself. For example, the Central Division Civil Independent Calendar departments used to process an average case load of 500 cases each but now handle an average caseload of 1,500 cases.
• The civil justice system (general civil matters, family law, probate, small claims) has been particularly impacted and there are greater delays. In civil cases, routine motions are often set for hearing six to eight months later, there is significant backlog in entry of judgments, sometimes well over six months after a matter is concluded, and processing a default judgment that used to take only two weeks now can take more than six months. In family matters, families who confront difficult custody issues often wait up to ten weeks for the initial appointment with Family Law Services.
• In traffic court, a party who contests a simple traffic ticket can wait at least seven months before it can be heard.
• There is now at least an eight-week backlog on issuance of misdemeanor warrants for failure to comply with a court order. Those warrants used to be issued in about one week. Failure to comply with court orders is more than just a penalty for the offending party, because it strikes at the efficient operation of the system.
In addition to these operational effects, there is the real world impact on the public, and the bar association report offers several examples. It becomes harder for businesses to prevent rivals from engaging in unfair competition or misappropriating trade secrets, or to develop new products, operate in new markets or hire employees. They also have difficulty enforcing contracts in a timely manner.
For families, delay means child support, wage garnishment orders or custody battles are not promptly resolved. Denial of timely and effective judicial action increases risk of financial or physical harm to those involved and may burden the criminal justice system if parties take highly emotional matters into their own hands. An even when there is resolution, parties often cannot agree on what the court decided. Without a court reporter, there are no transcripts to resolve the question, which forces the parties to re-litigate the same issue and suffer a cycle of expense and delay.
Public confidence in our judiciary preserves and promotes economic success and is essential for our democracy. As Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, wrote in The Sacramento Bee, the courts “are essential to our freedom.” But as the bar association report makes clear, budget cuts and service elimination have far-reaching consequences on litigants, businesses, families and individuals throughout San Diego County.
Brad Weinreb is a Deputy Attorney General and judicial candidate for San Diego Superior Court. He is an adjunct professor at Cal Western Law School and a former small business owner.