Who Will Govern the Unified Courts?
Unification will not solve many of the most pressing problems of the county court system
By Patricia M. Schnegg
Patricia M. Schnegg is president of the Association.
This President's Page was originally published in the February 2000 issue of Los Angeles Lawyer.
The unification of the Los Angeles Superior and Municipal Courts will create one of the largest court systems in the United States, with approximately 500 judicial officers serving the county's more than 10 million residents. Before unification there was much room for improvement in both courts, and it is only logical to assume that unification will not cause all the existing problems to disappear. Moreover, as in any union-whether personal or professional-new problems will undoubtedly arise. Clearly, one of the most significant and immediate of these will be court management. What both bench and bar want to know is: who will govern the unified court and how?
Seen in this light, unification actually offers a unique opportunity to remedy many of the systemic problems that have plagued the court. Fortunately, the court can draw upon the findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Superior Court Improvement, a body jointly created by the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the superior court to identify ways to increase public support and confidence in the work of the court. In 1997 the Blue Ribbon Commission established the Los Angeles Superior Court Improvement Initiative in partnership with USC's School of Public Administration. Initiative staff gathered data by interviewing individuals with knowledge of the courts, surveying more than 2,500 court users, conducting public opinion polls to determine general perceptions of the court, and establishing task forces throughout the county consisting of the court's stakeholders-judges, attorneys, litigants, court staff, and former jurors.
In late 1997 the initiative issued an interim report, concluding that the court's stakeholders wanted immediate improvement in many critical areas. The interim report recommended, among other changes:
- Improving the user-friendliness of the court at all levels, from the quality of customer service offered at filing windows to increased courtesy and civility throughout the courts.
- Improving the assignment of cases to judicial officers with specific experience and knowledge of the relevant subject matter.
- Establishing a complex litigation court.
- Mandating uniform countywide rules and procedures.
- Introducing jury reform.
While the court has undertaken significant steps embracing court improvement, there is no doubt that the debate over unification has, by necessity, pushed the discussion of court improvement onto the back burner. With the unification issue now resolved, the focus can again return to court improvement. But enacting significant court reform on a countywide basis requires a mechanism to mandate and implement change-and that can only be accomplished through a more effective court governance system.
Perhaps the most significant finding of the Court Improvement Initiative was that the superior court lacks an effective governance system, without which there can be no significant court reform. Specifically, the interim report found:
The Superior Court currently lacks the institutional capacity to act responsively and effectively to address concerns of its stakeholders. The best efforts of individual judges, including those in leadership positions in the court, are limited by a governance structure and a judicial culture that impede strong leadership, accountability, and responsiveness to outsiders.
An efficient, reliable, and responsive court system is important to the entire profession and directly affects public confidence in the judicial system. In fact, the surveys the initiative conducted show that the public's main criticism of the courts is directed not at a lack of fairness or justice but at a perceived lack of efficiency and user-friendliness. Court governance is even more critical as the number of judicial officers expands to 500. The current system of governance in which a presiding judge reports to the entire bench is unworkable. A new system that relieves the presiding judge of the burden of dealing with each bench officer on an individual basis must be devised.
Unfortunately, we have found no governance models from other court systems that can be readily applied in our county, which means that we must move forward without any guarantees or assurances of success. Recognizing that governance is a critical component of court reform, however, the Blue Ribbon Commission has created a Governance Task Force, chaired by John Collins. The goal of the task force is to work with the court to explore alternatives to the current system of trial court governance and to meet the following objectives:
- Raise the consciousness among members of the bench and bar about the critical need for more effective strategic governance,
- Develop concrete and specific innovations in judicial administration, and
- Raise the visibility of the governance issue so that all members of the bench view governance reform as one of their primary responsibilities.
The findings reported by the initiative should serve as a valuable blueprint for the court. We should all view unification as an unprecedented opportunity to work together in designing and implementing a system of governance that will serve the needs of all stakeholders in the administration of justice. The Association looks forward to working cooperatively with the newly unified Los Angeles Superior Court to meet this challenge.