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Rex S. Heinke is president of the Association. His e-mail address is rheinke@gmsr.com.

This President's Page was originally published in the October 2000 issue of Los Angeles Lawyer.

Blue Ribbon Commission Issues Final Report

More improvements are on the way at the Los Angeles County Superior Court

The Association's Blue Ribbon Commission on Superior Court Improvement has issued its final report. The goal of the Blue Ribbon Commission, which is funded by a grant from the John Randolph and Dora Haynes Foundation and works with the University of Southern California, is to improve the administration of justice in the Los Angeles Superior Court. It has cooperated with the judges and administrators of the court to implement recommendations that arose out of surveys it conducted of the court's stakeholders: lawyers, jurors, witnesses, and litigants.

Several of the commission's recommendations have already been implemented, including:

  • Limiting jury service to one day or one trial. This system is already in place in the San Fernando Valley and is being implemented in Pomona. By year's end it will be available in Torrance, Inglewood, Glendale, and Burbank. The goal is to have the one-day-or-one-trial system available countywide by 2002.   
  • Eliminating local rules in the Central Civil Courthouse.   
  • Making greater use of the long cause court and creating a new complex civil court. Both courts are designed to speed the resolution of qualifying cases by assigning all of them to a limited number of experienced judges who are supported by additional research attorneys and other staff needed to handle complex matters. Removing these cases from the dockets of other judges should also allow those judges to handle their caseloads more efficiently.   
  • Changing the way judges elect their representatives to the court's executive committee from a seniority-based system to one based on geographic representation.   
  • Creating a Department of Organizational Development and Education to coordinate these and related efforts. This new department will be headed by Professor Bryan Borys, who is the coprincipal investigator for the Blue Ribbon Commission.   
  • Continuation of the monitoring of the court's performance through periodic surveys of court users and by responding to any problems that are identified.

The Governance Issue

Much progress has already been made thanks to the willingness of the leadership of the Los Angeles Superior Court to act on the Blue Ribbon Commission's recommendations. However, issues about how the court governs itself are not yet fully resolved. In particular, the problem remains of how to ensure that all superior court judges and their staffs participate in the implementation of the court's strategic plan to improve service to all its stakeholders. This plan includes better treatment of jurors, educating the court staff to be more responsive to the needs of stakeholders, and the appropriate assignment of cases to judges with the requisite experience and background.

Some in the court have raised legitimate questions about whether monitoring such areas of judicial performance will undermine judicial independence. However, an important distinction should be made between interfering with how a judge decides a particular case, which would compromise judicial independence, and educating judges, for example, on the need to be responsive to the problems jurors face when so much of their time is spent waiting for something to happen. If judges and lawyers do not ensure that the court system is responsive to the public, someone else will inevitably fill that gap. The recent experiences of doctors indicate what can happen when the public decides that a profession has become unresponsive to its needs and concerns.

Currently, the court's executive committee is too involved in administrative tasks and thus lacks the ability to focus on its important policy-making role. Because the court is such a large organization—with hundreds of employees, a multimillion dollar budget, and thousands of stakeholders—it needs a structure adapted to the needs of a large organization, namely, a board of directors to make policy and a chief executive officer and other officers to implement policy. This can be accomplished by directing the executive committee to focus on policy, leaving implementation to the presiding judge, assistant presiding judge, and supervising judges, as well as (potential) assistant supervising judges.

To be effective, any system of governance must possess three critical management tools: 1) a set of standards against which individual performance can be measured, 2) a means of assessing individual performance, and 3) incentives to encourage staff to meet those standards. The court should create a committee to develop each of these tools. The committee should initiate a discussion among the judges and their staff to identify those qualities (e.g., civility and professionalism) that the judges want to encourage in all court personnel. Next, the judges need to evaluate the data on challenges to judges, both for cause and those made on a peremptory basis. Finally, a system of rewards needs to be created to encourage the mass of hard-working and well-intentioned judges and court staff to continue their good work, while setting an example for others.

Until recently, people were compelled to use our courts. They were not subject to market forces allowing a "customer" unhappy with the court's "product" to go to another "seller." However, as the rapid growth of alternative dispute resolution services has shown, many will opt out of this government system if they are dissatisfied with the product they are receiving. The current state of our school system demonstrates the depths of crisis that can be reached when dissatisfied users decide to opt out of a public institution. It is imperative that our superior court not allow such a crisis point to be reached. The court can avoid this by using polls, surveys, and focus groups, as the Blue Ribbon Commission has done successfully, to keep itself well informed about the needs of its users.

The Necessity of Change

Critical to the success of all these recommendations is an appreciation by the judges that change is necessary. One significant finding of the Blue Ribbon Commission was that while all the users of the court felt there was a need for change in court operations, the judges did not share that view. This may stem from the fact that the judges control the court system and so find it responsive to their needs, while the court's users are not able to exercise such control. For example, judges do not experience the rudeness that every lawyer has experienced because they do appear before another judge or court clerk. This is not to deny that judges sometimes face lawyers, witnesses, or jurors who act improperly. However, judges and clerks have ways to deal with this behavior. It is important in maintaining the court's legitimacy that its users feel that they too have ways to deal with problems and that the court will respond to their legitimate concerns.

The court needs to ensure that its largest constituency—lawyers—and the rest of the public support it. As the many judicial administration issues before the legislature (judicial salaries, court funding, juror pay, and court unification, among others) demonstrate, the court needs strong public support if it is to receive the resources it needs to properly perform its important role as the third branch of government.

The superior court has made major strides in improving its responsiveness to its users. We look forward to continuing to work with the judges to discuss how best to serve the needs of the public and to improve the administration of justice in the world's largest trial court. If you have issues that you feel need to be raised with the superior court, please contact me or send an e-mail message to John Collins, the head of our Blue Ribbon Commission, at jcollins@ccmtlaw.com.

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