Tag Archives: court closure

Will Plaintiffs Choose Federal Over California’s Broken State Courts?

kjuhLaw360 reported Wednesday that budget cuts are crippling the California state court system. Not that this is really news. Between court closures, job cuts, “no-host” court reporters, furloughs, getting regular, reasonable and reliable access to justice has become very difficult in California state court. And, it’s only anticipated to get worse. The article suggests that, in June, the Los Angeles Superior Court will experience a reduction to 25% fewer courtrooms. Apparently “all of the 16,000 personal injury cases are going to be divided among three judges.”

Really? How can any judge manage a docket of over 5,000 cases?

“Experts,” the article says, believe that plaintiffs will increasingly resort (gasp!) to filing their cases in federal district court. I know this is possible with employment actions where there are both state and federal remedies. But will this become a more appealing alternative to filing in state court and waiting as the case winds through that crumbling court system? I’m not so sure.

I’ve encountered a lot of practitioners on the plaintiff side who will do almost anything to stay out of federal court. I’m not suggesting that this is because these lawyers can’t, by putting in the effort, get up to speed and comply with the stringent federal procedural requirements. It’s more circular. Lawyers who have historically shied away from a federal practice seem less comfortable with the Federal Rules of Evidence or Civil Procedure, which leads them to choose state court, which perpetuates their discomfort with the federal rules and procedures, and on and on, ad infinitum. Could the clogged California state system get so bad that these lawyers overcome this bias against federal court?

There are at least two other reasons I don’t expect plaintiffs to rush into the federal courthouse. First, unanimous agreement among the jurors is required for a verdict in federal court. (FRCP 48) In California state court, only 9 of 12, or three-quarters of the jury, must agree to reach a verdict for the plaintiff. (CCP §613) This means a lot of wiggle room in the state system and absolutely no wiggle room in the federal system.

As I’ve noted, there’s also the question of where jurors are drawn from. In the Los Angeles Superior Court, the jurors will come from Los Angeles county, and typically a smaller judicial district closer to the courthouse. Thus, a case in the Santa Monica courthouse will get jurors with different socioeconomic, ethnic and educational backgrounds from a case pending in the downtown LA courthouse. The federal district courts, however, draw from the entire Northern, Southern, Eastern or Central districts, each of which is a broader conglomeration of separate communities. On the defense side, we often believe this tends to dull the anti-corporate bias which might be prevalent in any one community.

Finally, I cannot attest to the accuracy of this premise–but it has been my experience with federal district court judges that they at least seem more conservative and less pro-plaintiff. At the very least, they pay closer attention to the procedural rules and have less tolerance for blatantly sloppy lawyering. While I can’t control much once a case or issue is in the hands of a judge or jury, I can ABSOLUTELY control whether the lawyering is sloppy. Not everyone is so eager to please.

So, while I’m confident the crisis in the California state court system will have repercussions and practice-changing consequences (such as reserving a date for summary judgment when you answer the complaint!), I’m not inclined to think there will be any kind of stampede to the federal courthouse. Just a hunch.


Closure: Coming Soon To A Courthouse Near You

wwsseedPerhaps this is unique to California, but I just received another announcement from our attorney service of a courthouse closure. In addition, the notice mentioned yet another court that, although not closing altogether, was being reduced by several newly darkened courtrooms.

As a lawyer who makes his living doing things court-related, I’m both saddened and alarmed to learn that entire courthouses are closing. It’s not that I’m sad or afraid because there are fewer lawsuits being filed (that appears to remain on the rise), but rather that there’s a rapidly shrinking number of venues available to resolve those disputes. It will take longer for cases to get to trial, resulting in fewer trials and less access to justice. It will also make it harder for newer generations of lawyers to get trial experience. (This is obviously a secondary concern, but it is a legitimate concern for many of us.) It’s . . . a . . . disappointing to live in such a perpetually mismanaged state. But I’ve been thinking about ways the judiciary and our profession can cope with this situation and I’ve come up with a couple of ideas.

First, I recently co-authored an article for the ACC Docket which talked about the notion of a “compressed” trial, in which the judge forced the parties to present a case that would normally consume 3 weeks in just 4 days. Much of the article discussed tips and suggestions how to better prepare for this kind of compressed trial format, but I also argued that lawyers and their clients should not just accept such a drastically condensed trial, but actually embrace the concept. After all, if a trial that would normally consume 3 weeks could be reasonably condensed down to 4 days,* that would free up 2 weeks in which two more highly compressed trials could be completed. Imagine completing 3 trials in the time if used to take to do just one.

There was a program introduced in some parts of California for the 1 day jury trial. I don’t know if that was successful or is still being practiced. But that’s not what I’m advocating. If the lawyers can shape a case to be tried in a day or less they will almost always do so on their own. But it takes a pretty heavy-handed judge to force the lawyers and parties to condense a 3 week presentation to something like 4 days. Perhaps more judges should do this. Just a thought.

Another idea involves ADR. If budget cuts are effectively privatizing access to justice in some places, it ought to at least be done right. A major concern centers around the cost of ADR, and I’m not talking about the hourly fees of neutrals. In my experience, the rates of most neutrals are commensurate, or even slightly less, than those of the attorneys appearing before them. But there are costs associated with working with an “institutional” ADR provider that tend to give our clients pause, and with good reason. If law firms are going to be squeezed and forced to do more for less, shouldn’t ADR providers do the same? What about more “solo” ADR providers?

My personal beef with ADR, at least arbitrations, is the inconsistent application of the rules of evidence. Appellate courts keep judges honest, but some arbitrators can and do dispense with evidence rules rather freely, which makes the hearing something of a chaotic free-for-all.

There’s no real silver lining to the issue of darkened courtrooms and closed courthouses. Wherever it occurs, there is reduced access to justice. Perhaps, though, we can collectively brainstorm and come up with constructive ways to manage the problem.

*Whether it was in fact “reasonable” for the judge to compress the trial this aggressively was a subject of some debate, particularly by counsel for the losing side which, fortunately, was not me.


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