CJAC: Civil Justice Association of California

Mar 30, 2012

Recent Legislation Will Only Clog Courts

The Recorder
March 30, 2012

By Kim Stone

Watching Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye give her State of the Judiciary speech on March 19, two things were clear: 1) The judicial branch is in capable hands under her leadership, and 2) what she doesn't need from the Legislature is to make her job even tougher than it already is.

All observers eagerly waited to see how the chief justice would address AB 1208, legislation that would decentralize the court system and undermine the authority of the state's Judicial Council, which Cantil-Sakauye heads. While she avoided mentioning the bill, she outlined how the trial court unification that began just 15 years ago has resulted in a better court system that is easier for Californians to use than it used to be. Plaintiffs and defendants deserve certainty, uniformity and efficiency in dealing with the court system and court unification has helped with this in numerous ways including jury instructions, expedited jury trials and electronic discovery. AB 1208 threatens to move us in the opposite direction and factionalize our court system.

While court unification under the Judicial Council has not gone as smoothly as many would wish, and there have certainly been complications with the court construction program and California Case Management System, the chief justice, who has only been on the job 14 months, reminded us that she has taken a number of steps to ensure greater oversight and more effective governance.

Bottom line: AB 1208 is not needed and would be counterproductive.

Cantil-Sakauye's speech also provided us with a stark reminder of where the court budget stands. While the judicial branch is supposed to be co-equal with the legislative and executive branches, the courts get only 2.4 percent of the state budget. The judicial branch has lost a quarter of its budget since the 2008 economic collapse and as the chief justice eloquently put it, "[T]he cruel irony is that the economic forces that have led to budget reductions to the courts are the same ones that drive more of our residents to court."

We can't look to the court system for more cuts. Californians need to be able to rely on a fully functioning court system to resolve their disputes in a timely manner. Fortunately, the budget proposed by Governor Jerry Brown in January does not include any more cuts to the courts, but that's all dependent upon voters approving his tax initiative in November.

What makes it all the worse, as Cantil-Sakauye pointed out, is that while the courts deal with the devastating slashes to their budget, superior court filings topped 10 million for the second consecutive year, a 20 percent increase over the past decade.

So the Legislature needs to recognize that in addition to avoiding any more budget cuts to the courts, it also needs to squash any legislative proposals that will throw even more cases into court.

Once again unfortunately, we are seeing bills introduced this year that would create more unnecessary lawsuits that would clog our court system.

Here are a few examples:

AB 1627, authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would prohibit cities and counties from issuing building permits until and unless the local building official determines that the building plans contain detailed standards that significantly reduce vehicle miles traveled by the occupants of those buildings (which is already addressed under current law). The bill would create many more opportunities for lawsuits to be filed under the California Environmental Quality Act, which would slow or stop building projects in addition to clogging the courts.

AB 1999, authored by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, would add "familial status" to the list of protected classes who may sue employers for perceived discrimination. The bill is aimed at preventing discrimination against those who are caregivers for a family member, even though there are already extensive protections for caregivers under current law. Employment discrimination claims have been a favorite area of litigation for plaintiffs lawyers any time there is an adverse employment action, and a bill like this could create more abusive lawsuits that our courts have to deal with.

SB 982, authored by Senator Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, would place new restrictions on corporations regarding political giving and would allow lawsuits by individual shareholders to enforce violations of those new restrictions for de minimis violations. Shareholder lawsuits against companies are already one of the favored types of class actions. There is no reason to create new avenues to sue in this arena.

SB 1528, authored by Senator Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would encourage more lawsuits by allowing plaintiffs to receive awards for medical damages above and beyond what was actually paid. This bill seeks to overturn well-established case law and the California Supreme Court's ruling last year in Howell v. Hamilton Meats, 11 C.D.O.S. 10525, held that a plaintiff may only collect the amount that was actually paid by insurers for medical treatment rather than the higher retail rate that medical providers could charge an uninsured patient for that treatment.

It is readily apparent that the judicial branch already has its hands full between addressing concerns about governance and trying to make do with the skimpy budget it has been given. The State of the Judiciary was a reminder that our chief justice is committed to overcoming these challenges and to making the judicial branch function better. Let us hope that the Legislature gives her the chance and remembers the difficult circumstances our courts already face as it works through the budget and legislation this year.

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