Reaffirming Support for Court Unification
Delaying the inevitable will only cost the county badly needed funds
By Patricia M. Schnegg
Patricia M. Schnegg is president of the Association.
This President's Page was originally published in the January 2000 issue of Los Angeles Lawyer.
The effort to unify the trial courts of Los Angeles County has twice been defeated by a vote of the superior court judges. We now anticipate that early this year they will vote for a third time on this critical issue. The Los Angeles County Bar Association strongly urges the superior court judges to vote yes on unification.
These votes resulted from the June 1998 voter approval of Proposition 220, which allows trial courts to merge upon the separate affirmative votes of the superior court judges and the municipal court judges of each county. To date, courts in 54 of the state's 58 counties have unified. Of the four counties that have not, two still await federal clearance for unification, leaving only two counties-Los Angeles and Kern-that have actually rejected unification. And in Los Angeles County, municipal court judges have twice voted in favor. In voting against unification, superior court judges have cited the risk of a lawsuit based on the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) and the potential for splintering the county into smaller judicial districts.
The Association has consistently supported the unification of the superior and municipal trial courts. However, cognizant of the continuing controversy, we reexamined the issue in late 1999 through an Ad Hoc Committee on Trial Court Unification chaired by Patricia Phillips, past president of the Association. The committee filed a comprehensive 17-page report that concluded that the negative vote of the judges is based "primarily on concerns for structural and personnel changes" that can be resolved by "firm and active court management" and much less on the possibility of a lawsuit under the VRA. Recognizing that unification is inevitable, the committee stated: "Whether the courts of Los Angeles County should unify is no longer the issue. That train has left Union Station without Los Angeles County."
The refusal of the superior court judges to approve unification is not without consequences. The hard reality is that this will inevitably result in financial loss to the citizens of Los Angeles County. We are already being denied the opportunity to participate in the pilot program for the newly organized complex-case courts, a concept that the lawyers of Los Angeles County and this Association have long advocated. The loss of potential new judicial seats and exclusion from the budget for court modernization will also result from the refusal to unify.
Our courts are already straining under the lack of adequate funding; we cannot afford a further erosion of resources. The superior court has experienced a decrease in funding for assigned judges. One need only look to a current directory at Central Civil West, which handles long-cause jury trials, where barely a handful of judges are available. As the funding crisis becomes more acute, we can only ask: to what end? All agree that unification is inevitable. In fact, if the courts do not unify, they are still compelled to coordinate, which presents many of the same challenges as unification.
In considering the case against unification, the only legitimate objection is that unification may violate the VRA. However, many legal scholars have concluded that a suit under the VRA would be unsuccessful. To ease the fears of those opposed to unification, Attorney General Bill Lockyer sent a letter to the superior court in September 1999, indicating that not only does he support a single, countywide court in Los Angeles but he would defend the unified court, or any individual judge, if a lawsuit under the VRA is brought.
The attorney general also expressed his agreement with the legal analysis that J. Clark Kelso, director of the Institute for Legislative Practice at McGeorge Law School, prepared for the Judicial Council. Kelso concluded that trial court unification is "unlikely to violate" the VRA. In further response to the superior court's concerns, Assemblyperson Sheila Kuehl, chair of the assembly judiciary committee and a Los Angeles lawyer, has indicated that she is committed to maintaining the integrity of the countywide unified trial court. Kuehl's pledge should not be taken lightly.
Some litigators in Los Angeles have expressed a concern that, under a unified court system, complex cases may be assigned to judges who are ill-prepared to handle them. Lawyers, however, have long complained about inappropriate case assignments, and this problem will persist under the court coordination process, which will continue even if unification is not approved. The answer, as the committee report urges, is a case assignment mechanism that ensures that cases are assigned to judges qualified to handle them. Based upon the ad hoc committee's recommendation, the Board of Trustees voted on October 13, 1999, to reaffirm the Association's commitment to the unification of the Los Angeles Superior and Municipal Courts. Superior court judges should vote yes on unification simply because it is the right thing to do. In taking this action the judges should be assured that this Association, Attorney General Lockyer, and Assemblyperson Kuehl are all on record as opposing any effort to split the county into smaller districts and as supporting the countywide election of judges. However, if unification is rejected again, legislative action will be unavoidable. This is a risk we cannot afford to take. Change is never easy, but it is critical that we move forward, together, to build an even better system for the administration of justice in our community.