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Justice defunded is justice denied

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

President, State Bar of California

Almost eerily, the court budget crisis blooms everywhere. Coming out of my Sacramento hotel room, I run smack into Santa Barbara County's Assistant Presiding Judge, Rodney Melville. "Gee," I say, "what brings you to Sacramento?" "Gee," he says, "Judge Barbara Beck and I are receiving an award for our work on our local mental health court."

I know a little about the program but he goes on to explain that many of those caught up in the petty crime end of the criminal justice system are suffering from chronic mental health disorders - for example, the outpatient who runs out of SSI money 20 days into the month and, though unable to pay, nevertheless eats a restaurant meal (see Penal Code §537(e), defrauding an innkeeper or "dine n' dash," in misdemeanor charging patois). Let's face it, directly addressing mental health issues saves criminal justice resources.

"Congratulations, that's really good news" I say. "No it's bad news," he says. "Because of trial court budget cuts, this program will close in June."

With absolute free range to grope for a cliché, I pick "penny wise but pound foolish."

If all politics is local, so are the impacts of court defunding. Your court has a story similar to this needing to be told. To your local legislative representatives. To your local lawyers. To the public.

The San Francisco Chronicle ran a "person on the street" piece recently asking, "For what programs would you be willing to pay increased taxes?" The answers? Health. Education. Safety. Ask a thousand citizens and I bet none would come up with, "Save the courts."

Fortunately, Sen. Joe Dunn, one of the few practicing lawyers in the legislature, the senator from Garden Grove and the Appropriations Subcommittee Chair, is a powerful and eloquent voice for our third branch in the legislature. But he needs our help. Please work with your local bar and bench to see what you can do to help our unified third branch. And check the State Bar website for materials - model letters, resolutions and editorials - to help you in your task.

Which brings me to Chickie Naylor. Chickie, swaddled in blue sweater and knit hat, her hazel eyes sparkly with merriment, is shy about her age. To guess would be ungentlemanly. Enough said.

Jim Herman listens to Chickie Naylor's concerns at a seniors event lst month.
(Click to Enlarge)

I met Chickie in San Francisco at a Mission District YMCA rollout for our new Seniors & the Law pamphlet covering the legal aspects of elder abuse, nursing homes, Social Security, housing, wills, Medicare, retirement and driving. On hand was State Bar staff, including Judy Johnson, Dean Kinley, Francisco Gomez and E.J. Bernacki and board of governors vice president Nancy Zamora and members Russ Roeca and Chantel Walker. After presentations by Helen Karr, admitted to the bar at age 64 with the goal of helping seniors, Howard Levy, executive director of Legal Services for the Elderly Inc., Diane Knoles of the San Francisco district attorney's Elder Abuse Unit and Mary Collins of Adult Protective Services, Chickie's hand shoots up like a misfired SCUD for the Q&A.

"I was unhappy with my last two lawyers. How do I find a good one?" We explained lawyer referral, networking and interviewing techniques to get the right fit. "What do I do when people call asking for money for the police? I always tell them no, but I feel guilty afterwards." Our seniors all agree with Chickie and the lawyers that one should never agree to give anyone money over the phone.

"What should I do when people call to take surveys?" We explain surveys are often a trick to get private information and should be avoided. Three strikes for Chickie and we move on to whether anyone in the room actually needs a living trust from a trust mill.

We leave the Mission YMCA feeling good not only about giving away our pamphlets, but also about leaving our seniors with real world local contacts as legal lifelines. We also leave knowing Legal Services for the Elderly Inc. is only one of the many legal services for the elderly programs across the state worried about budget cuts in the Equal Access Fund passed through from court funding and distributed by the State Bar.

Overall, Santa Barbara County law librarian Ray MacGregor is pretty easy on me for taking a month to return his call. "I have been pretty busy this year, Ray." "But so have I," says Ray, "and I return my calls." I have Ray to thank for hooking me up with the California Council of County Law Librarians (Ray is secretary) and its president, Anne Bernardo. Is there a lawyer in this state who doesn't understand the importance of the county law library? Unlikely. But over and above meeting lawyer needs, county law libraries are access to justice pipelines for unrepresented litigants.

Attending one of CCCLL's meetings was an eye-opener. Day in and day out, our county law librarians help people find legal research resources to untangle their legal problems, thereby benefiting both citizens and the courts. Through the work of bar staffer Mary Viviano, I am pleased to say we have been able to add a permanent chair for law librarians to the California Commission on Access to Justice.

Although we have an important discussion with CCCLL about access, our dialogue for me takes an unexpected turn. Our county law librarians are very concerned about the unauthorized practice of law perpetrated on a daily basis in and around law libraries - document preparers and scam artists preying on the elderly and the uninformed. Librarians stand by helplessly while these non-service providers without training or accountability divert pro pers away from the valuable reference services provided by law librarians. And of course the budget cuts are devastating the law libraries as well - an impact on access I had not really considered until my meeting with CCCLL.

I would love to hear stories from your community on the impacts of court defunding.

Next month, Keeping Up With the Jones - what randomly selected lawyers who happen to be named Jones think of the State Bar of California. If your name is Jones, be sure to wait by the phone.

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