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Courts are No.1 Priority

By James O. Heiting

James O. Heiting
Heiting

Axel is an immigrant who came to the United States believing in the American dream — and it became a reality for him. He and his wife worked hard. He became a manager of a Denny’s and then bought a small restaurant, building it into a success largely based on his friendly and welcoming personality and great personal service. Their family was doing well, with two children in high school and one in middle school, all active in sports and school clubs and looking forward to college. Then Axel was involved in a debilitating accident.

Although the accident was clearly the fault of another, the defendant was unwilling to pay unless and until the case got to trial.

The case had to be filed in Riverside County, where (even with a 20% increase in population in just the last four years and felony trials more than doubling) the number of judicial officers has remained stagnant for a decade at about one-half of those found to be necessary by the “Judicial Needs Study” (National Center for State Courts in 2001 and 2004); and civil cases necessarily take a back seat. (And due to the overcrowded criminal calendar, in the first nine months of 2005, 112 days of criminal trials have taken place in civil courtrooms, usurping civil trials, and requiring extraordinary security measures).

It took five years to get this case to trial. You can imagine the devastating effects on, first, their business, then discretionary spending, then the utilities and the mortgage, and, when they could no longer stay in their home, their ability to pay for rent, food and finally the very clothes on their backs.

Just focusing on the youngest (14 when the accident happened), he had been a happy young man, social and involved in sports and clubs, with his parents eagerly participating and helping him with band instrument and uniform, sports equipment and expenses for activities and trips.  When the parents could no longer afford to help, he started to withdraw. He could no longer participate in band, sports or any activities that required expense or financial contribution. He was embarrassed by his clothes (not meeting even the most modest current fashion). He had to go to work so he would have something other than hand-me-downs. Their family relationship suffered.  The boy seemed angry at their situation. The parents were ashamed and stopped being active with friends and family. As he went through high school, the young man became less desirable for colleges as he participated less, and the family could not afford tuition and books, so his selection of schools became very restricted, at best.

The case eventually settled on the courthouse steps (five year statute running), but only after the young man had already gone through all his high school years and one year at the community college. The family can never get back all they lost in those five years of struggle and fear. The children will never get back the lost opportunities, the proms that they could not attend, the social and educational interaction that was withheld from them. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg, just one story of hundreds in just one courthouse.

We are suffering a true crisis in access to justice in the counties of the Inland Empire and the Central Valley of our state. The ripple effect is staggering. The severe shortage of funded judicial positions creates concerns for public safety with backlogs of criminal cases leading to questioned plea bargains and some outright case dismissals. Lack of ability to deal promptly with custody and support issues, landlord-tenant, probate, business disputes, restraining orders and family law cases and complete suspension of work on civil caseloads, follow close behind.  Court staffing is also inadequate by about 25%, so in addition to a longer wait for trial, there are also longer waits for case processing, longer lines at the public counter and longer hold time for customers on the phones. Tension in the courts is at an all-time high. The courts operate every day in crisis mode. This cannot be tolerated.

Court funding must be given top priority by our legislators. Any legislator who fails to do so is failing the citizens of the State of California and is deliberately withholding and refusing to grant our citizens their right to access to justice.

We must encourage our local legislators, in the strongest possible terms, to support funding for an adequate number of judgeships throughout our state. Access to justice, quality of justice, must not be compromised.

In the absence of legislative action, we will have to call on our state Supreme Court and our chief justice to take action to reallocate judicial resources, reassigning judges who previously were assigned to other jurisdictions, addressing the greatest needs in specific areas of the state.

The U.S. Supreme Court emphasizes, “The right to sue and defend in the courts is the alternative of force. In an organized society it is the right conservative of all other rights, and lies at the foundation of orderly government.” Chambers v. Ohio Railroad Co., 207 U.S. 142, 148 (1907). 

“The courts are the one place where even the poorest, most powerless person can hold the richest, most powerful person or corporation accountable. Extremely emotional and heated disputes are resolved non-violently in the courts every day. If they can’t be, they’ll be resolved in the streets — because our nation is violating the principles on which it’s based.” (National Law Journal, March 28, 2005.)

Let’s go out and do some good.

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