May 2013 - The Funding Crisis and Orange County Courts
The Budget Crisis Is Real, and Expedited Jury Trials Can Help
by Mike Maguire
Orange County courts are in trouble, which really means that Orange County residents who seek resolution in our courts are in trouble. Without adequate funding, the court simply cannot handle the caseload it once did. Major reforms are needed, and fast. This past March, the Orange County Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) collaborated with the Superior Court in presenting a free CLE seminar addressing this threat to civil jury trials. More than 160 Orange County attorneys, judges, and court personnel attended the session co-sponsored by the Orange County Trial Lawyers Association (OCTLA), the Association for Business Trial Lawyers, the OCBA Business Litigation Section, and the Association of Southern California Defense Counsel.
The seminar provided a realistic assessment of the court funding crisis and advocated shortened or expedited jury trials as one avenue to bridge the growing chasm between litigants and justice. The goal of the seminar was to get more trial attorneys to understand, consider, and use expedited jury trials (EJTs) as well as other innovations, such as using six or eight-person juries or stipulating to limit issues, witnesses, and lengths of presentation.
Assistant Presiding Judge Glenda Sanders noted that California courts are becoming less funded by the General Fund and increasingly through fees charged to litigants—a disturbing trend that could create different classes of citizens: those who can afford litigation, and those who risk being priced out of access to court. With 92% of the Orange County Superior Courts’ budget going to compensation expenses, if the courts suffer additional budget cuts the only feasible way to manage will be in further cuts to court staffing and services.
Mark Robinson, Jr., President of the Orange County Chapter of ABOTA and National President-elect of ABOTA in 2014, showed data from the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) demonstrating that California leads the nation in the length of civil trials. On average, California civil trials last 8.86 days compared to the national average of 3.6 days. Mark noted that
each unnecessary hour of trial presentation was forever lost to other litigants and
Judge Gail Andler pointed out that perhaps your patent litigation requires a week of litigation with extensive questioning of experts. But your breach of contract case might actually benefit from a shortened time frame that cuts right to the core issues, appeals to jurors’ limited attention spans, and relieves jurors’ stress that can result from having to spend several extra days on jury duty. Judge Robert Moss discussed the success of six and eight-person juries, and trial attorneys DawnMarie Favata and Robert Gibson related their EJT experiences, including having sufficient time to present their cases.
Experience demonstrates that shortened trial time does not favor one side or the other. EJTs yield the same percentage of plaintiffs’ and defense verdicts and mirror verdicts in traditionally longer trials. New York, South Carolina, Utah, Florida, Clark County in Nevada, Multnomah County in Oregon, and Phoenix, Arizona already have such programs. Washington, Minnesota, Louisiana, Idaho, New Mexico, and Nevada are all in the process of adopting shortened trial programs. Moreover, you might be required to use EJTs or other trial-shortening methods in the future. The California Judicial Council is looking at many options in the face of this funding crisis, and Texas just adopted mandatory expedited jury trials in all civil cases with damages less than $100,000.
Now more than ever, we need to use EJTs to best utilize the court’s limited and dwindling resources. Aside from the obvious benefits of a shorter, less expensive process, EJTs can help bridge the growing funding gap—but only if trial lawyers opt to use them. EJTs have been available for over two years but are hardly used by attorneys, who might not fully understand the benefits, or may be resistant to change. The more we educate trial attorneys and share our positive experiences with EJTs, the faster we can overcome that resistance and conserve resources. Please join us as we work collectively to keep courtrooms open, protect the right to a civil jury trial, and preserve access to justice.
Try an EJT—you will like it. Or agree to shorten trial presentation or decrease the number of jurors. It will be good for your client and for Orange County.
Mike Maguire is the Managing Attorney of Michael Maguire & Associates, Employees of the Corporate Law Department of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company in Costa Mesa. Mike is Vice President of the ABOTA Foundation, Past President of the OC ABOTA chapter, and Past President of the Orange County Bar Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A View from the Bench
by Hon. Thomas J. Borris and Hon. Glenda Sanders
Due to the budget cuts to the judicial branch by the governor and the legislature over the past four fiscal years, most of the trial courts across California have reduced services to the public and to the members of the bar. Virtually all trial courts have reduced the operating hours of the clerk’s office, laid off civil court reporter staff, laid off court commissioners, and have closed courtrooms and/or court buildings. Travel to the trial courts in California has become an almost insurmountable undertaking for many indigent or disabled members of the public. However, the worst is yet to come, especially for our own courts here in Orange County. Under the upcoming fiscal year state budget proposal by Governor Brown, the Orange County Superior Court will have to dramatically adjust operations to survive a budget deficit of forty million dollars or more beginning on July 1, 2014.
A recent study by the National Center for State Courts revealed that, across the United States, the judicial branch in the other states comprises about 2% of each total state’s budget. In California, the judicial branch receives barely 1% of the total state budget. Our court greatly appreciates the support of the Orange County legal community in necessary local operational changes. Yet, every member of the legal community in Orange County and in the state of California must continue to do whatever can be done to persuade the governor and the California legislature to fully fund the judicial branch in order to ensure access to justice for all citizens.
Honorable Thomas J. Borris, Presiding Judge, and Honorable Glenda Sanders, Assistant Presiding Judge, Superior Court of California, County of Orange.