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Ten ways to improve the legal system

By Edwin B. Stegman

Edwin B. Stegman

For more than 55 years, I have practiced trial and appellate law. I was president of the Westwood Bar Association, a member of the Los Angeles Superior Court Bench and Bar Committee and served on the civil advisory committee to the supervising judge of the west district. I offer my personal recommendations for judicial reform to improve the administration of justice.

Civil and criminal Supreme Courts

Appeals of capital cases take far too long. The California Supreme Court is overwhelmed. There should be two supreme courts, civil and criminal. Civil lawyers and judges know little about criminal law and procedure and vice versa. I doubt that a former civil lawyer is qualified to determine whether error is prejudicial in a criminal trial. Yet both types sit on the court.

Campaign fund-raising

The County Registrar of Voters should publish in the voter’s guide, without charge, campaign statements by judicial candidates who can demonstrate a minimum of support, so they have less need to solicit campaign funds from vested interests and lawyers who appear before them.

Challenge of justices and federal judges

We desperately need a CCP 170.6 type peremptory challenge of unreasonable and prejudiced federal judges and Court of Appeal justices and divisions.

Independent criminal defense lawyers

The right to a jury trial and an independent defense lawyer is the bedrock of our freedom. A pool of independent, experienced defense lawyers is as important for our liberty as the right to trial by jury.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has restricted the size of the pool of experienced, independent attorneys by establishing the Alternative Public Defender (APD), in an unwise, misguided attempt to save money. I call for a study of whether the Alternate Public Defender costs more than private appointed attorneys. I believe it simultaneously diminishes freedom and increases costs.

A solution for prison overcrowding

Instead of building more prisons, we should create Criminal Quarantine Communities (CQCs) to house career criminals (two- and three-strikers and child molesters). CQCs should be fenced and guarded, but they should be normal communities with theaters, restaurants, schools, churches, etc. Inmates would live in apartments, have jobs and pay for their keep.

CQCs would be more humane and far less expensive than prisons to build, maintain and operate. Recidivists would be out of circulation. Conditions for reform and rehabilitation would be far better in a community setting.

Motions for summary judgment

Motions for summary judgment (MFSJ) were originally a summary procedure to deal with the practice of debtors filing unmeritorious answers to delay collection of their debts. CCP §437c, enacted in 1931, required 10 days’ notice for a motion for summary judgment. The motion is no longer “summary.”

Instead of 10, the motion now requires 80 days notice, if by mail. The court may grant a continuance to conduct discovery; then the judge has 90 days to rule, the loser has 15 days to file a motion for new trial and the court has 60 days to rule. Therefore, it can take more than a year for a creditor to obtain a judgment to collect a debt. As a result, collections specialists say the MFSJ has become so slow, cumbersome and expensive ($200 filing fee) that they rarely use it.

So we’re back to pre-1931 and debtors can again file unmeritorious answers to delay collection of their debts.

Furthermore, most MFSJs waste lawyer and judicial time and increase the cost of justice. Many are denied by trial courts or reversed on appeal. Sometimes, the MFSJ is used to deny a jury trial. It costs about $1,000, plus attorney fees, to appeal a summary judgment.

Court safety

Former Los Angeles County court administrators had a Maginot Line mentality. About the time they installed metal detectors, they withdrew armed bailiffs from the civil courts. So if someone gets a gun past the metal detectors, there will be no one in the courtroom to protect the judge, lawyers, staff and public.

If someone starts shooting, the judge can push an emergency button and deputies will arrive shortly thereafter, in time to collect the bodies. I suggest that the wells of judges’ benches be lined with bulletproof material to protect the judge.

Judge and lawyer conflicts of interest

The practice of judges appointing counsel for indigent criminal defendants should be discontinued. The judge and attorney have conflicts of interest. By selecting the defendant’s attorney, the judge is participating in the defense of the action, and the attorney is beholden to the judge for appointments to cases. They have different agendas.

Solution: Defendants should select their own lawyers from a list of attorneys willing to work for the county’s miserly fee schedule or counsel should be appointed by the rotation or at random.

Judge conflict of interest

It is absurd that the validity of a CCP §170.6 peremptory challenge motion is heard by the allegedly prejudiced judge it is filed against. If prejudiced, he should not have the power to defeat the motion. The judge has an incentive to deny the motion because he will then have one less peremptory challenge on his record. Furthermore, if he was prejudiced before, he is more likely to be so by the filing of the challenge. The rule is unfair and unreasonable.

Unconsionable court fees

A peaceful, affordable means of resolving disputes is essential for a civilized society. Court fees are now so high they are outrageous. If a married couple is sued for $11,000, the filing fee for a demurrer is $680. An answer costs $600. The legislature and the governor are tying to balance state budgets partly on the backs of people who have been cheated, injured, damaged, harassed or molested.

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