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What price justice?

James E. Herman 2002-03 President State Bar of California
Herman

By JAMES E. HERMAN
President, State Bar of California

Pea soup-colored Colorado river water runs north up an irrigation canal on our left as the Mexican border fence floats in heat that shimmers on the horizon in front of us. Razor-thin from years of marathoning and with a permanent squint narrowing the view of his adopted landscape, Randy Rutten talks about practicing law in Imperial County.

As we turn into Calexico, driving past the white-washed first office of the United Farm Workers, Randy, in his second stint as local bar president, can't help but smile as he talks about his two-lawyer firm, his 52-lawyer Imperial County Bar Association and the 10-judge superior court. In our walk around the courthouse before our drive, Randy enjoys the obvious affection of the lawyers who josh and kid with small town geniality.

But when I raise the issue of the big cuts ahead in trial court funding, Randy admits he's worried about what it could mean for his personal injury practice. He doesn't relish closed clerks' offices and long trial delays. Knowing cuts will hit programs promoting public access to the courts first, he shares Imperial County Presiding Judge Juan Ulloa's concern about where to find the funds to get the self-help litigant center up and running.

Randy thinks maybe he'll take on raising the money from the local bar as a project during his presidential year. And Judge Ulloa, a former legal services lawyer, observes that although state trial court funding has taken the county two steps forward, he is not happy about taking one step back.

Earlier in the day, I dropped by the El Centro office of California Rural Legal Assistance. Eric McKinley, sole staff lawyer, speaks Spanish with a client. The client drifts away and McKinley, graying and harried, sits down with 30-year CRLA administrator Lupe Quinteros and me to talk about Imperial County CRLA woes. Down from six support staff to only one, McKinley's budget faces further cuts next year in access money passed through from trial court funding and distributed to legal services agencies throughout the state by the State Bar.

If the interest on lawyer trust accounts (IOLTA) case now before the U.S. Supreme Court goes against legal services, McKinley faces a further 23 percent budget cut. With only one legal services lawyer for 40,000 people (the statewide average is one legal services lawyer per 10,000 people), CRLA services are already often limited to helping clients fill out Judicial Council forms. New cuts will be devastating.

We all have reason to worry. Under Gov. Davis' proposed budget now before the legislature, trial court funding in non-mandated programs would be reduced by at least $119 million and perhaps as much as $100 million more. Coming on the heels of last year's reductions, we are all faced with a court system very different from the system we currently enjoy.

Courtrooms will close. Since much of the budget is salary related, services will be substantially reduced. Clerk's offices will operate part time, mediation services will be defunded, and technical improvements will be deferred. Worse, we will lose many of the programs developed under Chief Justice Ronald George's commitment to access to justice.

These include court-appointed special advocates for children, caring about kids courts, self-help kiosks, small claims adviser phone banks and many other access programs. In many cases, those least able to absorb budget cuts will be the most affected.

Reductions will affect trial court delay. Not so long ago, civil cases were delayed up to five years before trial. The norm today throughout the state is that many cases are tried within a year and nearly all within two years. Shrinking resources will reverse this trend. And civil, probate and family law courts will be hardest hit.

In response to this budget crisis, the Bench Bar Coalition, led by Oakland's Jim Fisher, has assembled a working group to coordinate local bar efforts with the courts. Strategies include legislative and public outreach on the importance of maintaining our courts. The Administrative Office of the Courts will be participating in hearings on the budget throughout the state.

Bottom line: We are all part of a unified third branch. Access to the courts is a core value depending not just on trial court funding but on our individual pro bono efforts and contributions.

In the face of budget cutbacks, the State Bar mission statement, "to preserve and improve our justice system in order to assure a fair and just society under the law," takes on special significance.

The Board of Governors passed a resolution at its March meeting supporting the Chief Justice's efforts to minimizes the reductions and mitigate their effects. We will all need to help.

Oh, and Randy, Eric and Lupe, you make me proud to be a lawyer.

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