When it comes to discussing United States civil court policy, which frankly I do more than some of my friends might like, I have to thank Newport News, Virginia civil courts for illustrating a trend.
Newport News, a city of 180,000 people, helps me make the point that my hometown of Los Angeles is in a different league for civil court forum shopping than the rest of California, even though it was the entire state that a national tort reform group recently labeled a "Judicial Hellhole."
In a previous Huffington Post blog, I listed many reasons to agree with California's "Hellhole" designation, although my reasons differed from criteria developed by the Washington D.C. based American Tort Reform Association, known in D.C. as ATRA. Mostly, in L.A., the really hellish conditions stem not from rich lawyers suing rich corporations, but from a half-decade of state budget neglect totaling around a billion dollars.
California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye recently called lack of access to courts a "new civil rights issue." The Chief Justice stated,"... we are rationing justice, and its become more than a fiscal problem. It is in my view now a civil rights problem. Because when you can no longer guarantee timely access to justice, and you can no longer provide litigants a courtroom in his or her community of his or her peers, then we know we are denying the protections of an American democracy."
A "courtroom in his or her" community is increasingly hard to come by, with 51 courthouses and 205 courtrooms closed in 2012.
Which brings us back to Newport News. My point is that an individual jurisdiction can build a civil court separately from state laws. Forbes magazine recently named Virginia as the 2013 "most friendly to business." Forbes gushed that "... Virginia ranks first among the states in the regulatory category because of its business-friendly government policies and strong incentive offerings. The tort system is one of the best in the country for businesses..."
Even the relatively caustic Hellhole editors offered a nod to the state-city difference, noting that "... despite Virginia's generally conservative tort jurisprudence" and "recent reform" the Newport News courts had another environment. It is surprising that the Hellhole site alleges, "... the [Newport News] court has set a low bar for scientific reliability of expert testimony, relaxed causation standards, hidden from juries what the plaintiff's employer knew... and prevented product makers from asserting widely-accepted defenses." Apparently the court sometimes uses maritime law to bypass those Virginia reforms.
Fair enough -- I always say that one person's Judicial Hellhole is another's last bastion of American justice.
But Newport News reflects a trend that hit Los Angeles hard: Civil courts may be "statewide," but specific cities create their own justice ecosystems that attract a higher volume of cases, either locally grown or from "forum shopping" lawyers. When the chief justice says our slow courts are becoming a civil rights issue, she doesn't mean for Angelenos with the money to lawyer up, she means for the urban groups that are often underserved by other government functions; family court, eviction court, and small claims courts.
From a distance, it might not be obvious -- yet -- that L.A. has become different from the rest of California. After all, being a lawsuit-friendly city in a lawsuit-friendly state is hardly the stark contrast between Newport News and the rest of Virginia. Yet, L.A. is different, and the civil courts in my city are increasingly closed to traditionally underserved minority communities and likely fail to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The chief justice is right: this is a civil rights issue.
Access to justice in Los Angeles has become more difficult than it is elsewhere, even in much of California. And while I'm not the first to note that whatever happens in California eventually makes its way across the country, that trend is coming to deny access to a courthouse near you.
Sara Corcoran Warner is publisher of the non-profit California Courts Monitor website, "your daily ration of civil justice rationing." The website in February will launch a D.C.-based sister website, the National Courts Monitor.