An Agenda for Reforming the Superior Court
The Blue Ribbon Commission urges sweeping changes in court governance and culture
By Lee Smalley Edmon
Lee Smalley Edmon is president of the Association.
This President's Page was originally published in the November 1998 issue of Los Angeles Lawyer.
Jury reform is once again in the news. At the conclusion of the last legislative session Governor Wilson signed SB 1947, which calls for all state courts to adopt a one-day-one-trial jury system by January 1, 2000. Under this system, jurors are excused after one day of service unless they are picked to sit on a trial. The goal, of course, is to limit the seemingly endless hours that jurors wait (usually in vain) to be selected. Making the service less onerous and more predictable should increase citizen participation and confidence in the system. The business community supports this reform for obvious reasons.
The Los Angeles Times and the Daily Journal both described the new law as a major reform of the jury system. The Daily Journal reported, "When the reform is fully implemented, citizens in all 58 counties will be relieved from jury duty unless they are seated on a panel during their first day of service."
Well, not exactly. Just one day after these articles appeared, the Daily Journal published another front-page story under the headline, "One Trial, One Day? No Way in L.A., They Say." According to Gloria Gomez, manager of Los Angeles County's juror services division, this county holds far too many trials and needs far too many jurors each day for a pure one-day-one-trial system to work. Gomez indicated that, as a result, Los Angeles County will invoke the new law's escape clause, which allows a county to avoid the one-day-one-trial requirement if it can show "good cause why such a requirement is impractical."
"No way this will work in L.A." is an excuse that those of us who practice in our local courts are all too familiar with. Because this county has more judges, more jurors, more trials, more litigants, more courtrooms, and more courthouses than any other county in the state-indeed, in the country-reforms and court improvements undertaken by other jurisdictions are routinely dismissed on the ground that these experiences are simply irrelevant here. Actual experience belies this excuse: the success of the Trial Delay Reduction Act shows that reforms that work elsewhere can work in Los Angeles too.
According to a recent Association survey, you too are tired of the it-just-won't-work-in-L.A. excuse when it comes to court improvement. In fact, more than 80 percent of our members place court and judicial improvement initiatives among the Association's top priorities.
Our Efforts Pay Off
So here is the good news. The Association's efforts on your behalf are beginning to pay off. We have listened to your concerns about the Los Angeles Superior Court and taken steps to do something about them. In 1996, the Association formed its Blue Ribbon Commission on Superior Court Improvement, chaired by John Collins of Collins, Collins, Muir and Traver and comprising judges and members of our Association who are experienced criminal, civil, and family law lawyers. Since then, the Blue Ribbon Commission has been working with the superior court and the University of Southern California School of Public Administration to identify ways to make the court more user friendly, less cumbersome, and fairer. The Blue Ribbon Commission's recently released interim report, "An Agenda for Change," makes recommendations for specific court improvements, and the superior court has agreed to undertake many of them.
During the course of its work, the commission solicited input from all users of the court, a group that academics call stakeholders. Stakeholders include judges, civil and criminal practitioners, law enforcement officials, the business community, jurors, litigants, and witnesses. Thousands of people provided information through several channels: in-depth interviews; a written survey of a broad cross-section of court users (including members of our Association as well as members of Consumer Attorneys of Los Angeles, the American Board of Trial Advocates, and the Southern California Defense Council); a public opinion poll focusing on overall perceptions of the Superior Court; meetings of three task forces made up of frequent users of the Central Civil, Norwalk, and Van Nuys courts; and stakeholders conferences, at which hundreds of people came together to brainstorm on court improvement issues.
The interim report summarizes the data and makes a number of key recommendations for improvements. Some recommendations were implemented immediately during the course of the information gathering; others will take more time. Some recommendations may require legislative approval or additional funding. Some items that the court has agreed to implement include:
- Countywide uniform rules and procedures. A number of judges still employ so-called local-local rules, despite the fact that most of these courtroom-specific rules have not been implemented in accord with Code of Civil Procedure Section 575.1(c). The report calls for, and the court's leadership has committed itself to, the immediate elimination of local-local rules so that practitioners and their clients need only abide by uniform, countywide rules and procedures.
- One-day-one-trial jury service. The report recommends, and the court's leadership has committed itself to, a pilot program to test the feasibility of the one-day-one-trial system. The test will occur during a six-month period, beginning January 1, 1999, in one designated superior court district. The report also encourages the adoption of additional docent programs to help guide jurors through jury service.
- Improved management of complex cases. In response to concerns that complex cases should be heard by judges experienced in such cases, the court recently began sending its most complicated civil cases to judges at Central Civil West. Currently this transfer does not take place until many motions may have already been determined and the trial is ready to begin. Attorneys have frequently expressed concern that these cases should be assigned earlier in the process. As a result, the court recently appointed Judge Harvey Schneider to implement a more effective system for complex case management at Central Civil West.
- Continued monitoring of performance. The court has committed itself to continued monitoring of its performance through periodic satisfaction surveys of court stakeholders with the goal of identifying and addressing shortcomings.
There are a number of additional recommendations in the report, including:
- Additional measures to make court facilities, programs, and procedures more user friendly. In a poll of 300 Los Angeles County residents, about half judged the court not to be user friendly. The court also received low ratings for efficiency and promptness. Attorneys cited the difficulty they face in obtaining information from the court as the system's chief weakness. In response to the report's findings, the court will appoint a task force to identify and implement court improvements designed to make the court more user friendly.
- Improved case reassignment system. Many practitioners feel that the system for reassigning a case after a judge has been challenged under Code of Civil Procedure Section 170.6 is unfair. Attorneys believe that once they have removed a judge from a case, the case is assigned to a judge who is among those most frequently challenged. Thus, clients often feel punished for having exercised the challenge. The court maintains that, although reassignment is not made on a purely random basis, it is done in a fair and effective way and that a purely random reassignment would place an unfair burden on judges who receive "extra" cases. Nevertheless, the perception of unfairness remains, and the Association has recommended the adoption of a random reassignment system, at least on a pilot basis to determine the effect on the judges' workloads.
- Improved quality and safety of facilities. Judges, court staff, and attorneys all expressed concerns about the physical deterioration of courthouses. In addition, basic security is a troubling issue, especially in Central Civil, where an already purchased weapon-detection system cannot be installed because of a lack of funding for personnel to operate the equipment and to make necessary building modifications.
Court Governance and Judicial Culture
Perhaps the most far-reaching recommendation of the report concerns court governance and judicial culture. The report describes the prevailing culture as one in which each judge is entitled to run his or her courtroom as he or she wants. The governance structure does not permit the court leadership to measure performance or hold judges accountable. As a result, responsiveness to court users is, in large part, dependent on the individual judge, and change occurs only when an individual judge is convinced that change is required. The report concludes that the court as a whole must increase its ability to implement changes that are reached jointly and collaboratively with its users.
To achieve this end, the report suggests two fundamental changes:
1) The court must find ways to improve its governance structure, thus enhancing its ability to risk change.
2) The court needs to cultivate a judicial culture that values increased responsiveness to the community and the ability to work jointly and collaboratively with key stakeholders.
To address this fundamental issue of judicial governance and culture, the court will appoint a task force of judicial officers, court administrators, members of the bar, and others to identify court governance models that other jurisdictions are using successfully and to make recommendations on how such models can be incorporated into the court's current governance structure.
The leadership of the Los Angeles Superior Court is to be commended for its willingness to participate in and respond to the findings of this unique project.
That this project even got off the ground is due in large part to the efforts of this Association, which counts nearly 22,000 lawyers among its members. The Association pressed superior court reform as one of its highest priorities. Its work has and will continue to improve the delivery of legal services to the public and the practice of law for lawyers. The more lawyers we have as members, the greater will be our influence with the courts, local government, and within the profession. If you are currently a member, renew your membership. If you are not, please join. Together we can make a difference.