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Verdict Is In: California Courts Hellish

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Isn't it funny when you totally agree with somebody, but for totally different reasons?

The Washington D.C. based American Tort Reform Association, known as ATRA, released a report on Tuesday designating California as the nation's leading "Judicial Hellholes," and cited Los Angeles for being its hell-raising center.

Oh, it's hell alright.

Just ask Femi Collins, a Nigerian immigrant who moved here in 1973, worked his way through Cal Poly Pamona University, and built his own American dream. When a series of setbacks, including blindness, left Mr. Collins battling his creditors, at least he could have his day in a local court. But his was one of eight facilities closed last year, causing him to go from a four-mile trip to a 27-mile bus ride taking hours. He has since lost his home.

Or maybe ask Dick Burdge, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, who was stuck for two years resolving a relatively minor contract dispute between partners of a small clothing manufacturing company. He told Bloomberg Businessweek that it was taking five months just to get routine hearing that used to take a few weeks. One study, cited by Bloomberg, said cases that once took about 15 months now take five years.

If the Bar Association president can't get a day in court, what chance do the rest of us have?

How about Tanya Nemcik, the 38-year-old mother of two who one topic of a landmark NBC Bay Area News report after waiting more than two years for a custody decision on sons, aged 5 and 7 years.

But none of that is why ATRA called us out. Daniel Fisher, writing at Forbes, explained it well that "... the Golden State won for the welcoming stance its courts take toward consumer class actions -- particularly against food companies -- and rampant lawsuits targeting small businesses over disability-access rules."

The actual ATRA report says the Golden State "... continues to be a breeding ground for consumer class actions, disability-access lawsuits and asbestos claims..."

I'd heard about the annual ATRA designation during a fall legal conference. You hear the business-defense community use the "hellhole" term fairly often, but of course the other side argues that a corporate "hellhole" might just be the best place for victims to find justice.

We'll not settle that debate today, and most likely not in our lifetimes. But I was drawn to the report at the press-watchdog Media Matters saying the ATRA list "... has been previously discredited for having no valid methodology and relying on unverified anecdotes drawn from press accounts. The Center for Justice & Democracy at New York Law School describes the ATRA's members as being 'largely Fortune 500 companies with a direct financial stake in restricting lawsuits..."

So, clearly, if nothing else, this report represents the thinking of "largely Fortune 500" companies, and it illustrates that California is part of national "forum shopping," the legal alchemy of finding the right mix of judge, jury and state law. Certainly, it's part of an attorney's responsibility to consider the best jurisdiction for their client. Yet, this is where the hellhole of Mr. Collins, et al and the hellhole of ATRA overlap.

We start by recognizing that low-income cases like tenant complaints or small claims or or family court disputes are never going be top priority. First, the criminal courts have constitutional guarantees and time sensitive cases; then the civil courts have their own pecking order -- like fast-tracking cases for victims who do not have long to live.
Hard to argue with that.

So budget cuts increasingly fall to those lacking social priority. Just ask supporters of the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South L.A., that was closed with scant public notice, let alone real input. Now that it's closed, residents have to go to court -- sometimes for something as simple as traffic tickets -- by city bus across disputed gang neighborhoods, or find themselves facing a bench warrant. That's a choice I'm not sure the Devil himself would be keen to make.

The take-away from the ATRA report is not that it's assembled by corporate defense advocates -- it clearly and openly was. No, the take-away is that we are, for good or ill, a prime court forum-shopping destination. Perhaps 100 percent of our cases belong here, but we must urge our judges to make sure they are not simply playing "host courthouse" if cases might go elsewhere -- like another state.

Because the folks who feel the real heat from backed-up courts and delayed justice are unlikely to be the lawyers and companies involved in these cases. They are going to be Mr. Collins and Ms. Nemcik and those kids with bench warrants. Theirs is the real hellhole.

(Sara Corcran Warner is publisher of the California Courts Monitor.)