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Law 360

Friday March 15, 2013

LA Eviction Court Closures Prompt Federal Lawsuit

By Andrew Strickler

Law360, New York (March 15, 2013) -- A group of Los Angeles nonprofits hit the county's superior court system with a federal lawsuit Thursday, claiming that the closure of all but five courtrooms for tenant eviction hearings would deal a "devastating blow" to low-income communities and the disabled.

The elimination of local hearings "effectively shuts the courthouse doors on many of the county's most vulnerable residents, in circumstances where meaningful access to justice can make the difference between homelessness and a secure place to live," the suit states.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, names as defendants Judge David Wesley, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Courts; the state of California and Gov. Jerry Brown; and the head clerk for the court system, John Clarke. 

Larry Gross, executive director for the Coalition For Economic Survival, one of the plaintiff organizations, said the closure of 21 of 26 neighborhood courtrooms — scheduled to begin Monday — would unfairly impact poor communities most in need of local access to courts.

"To have your day in court, you need a courtroom, and you need that courtroom to be accessible, and we see that the already unbalanced scales of justice will be further unbalanced by these closures," Gross told Law360 on Friday. "Our worry is we're going to see a situation where landlords are going to serve tenants with evictions when there is no legal justification and the tenants won't be able to respond or show up."

The suit claims the state's budget-cutting measure violates the Fair Housing Act, the section of the Rehabilitation Act covering people with disabilities, the Americans With Disabilities Act, as well as the First and 14th amendments.

Other plaintiffs include nonprofits Union de Vecinos, People Organized for Westside Renewal and the Independent Living Center of Southern California. The lead plaintiff, Brenda Miles of Northridge, Calif., is disabled with a spinal injury, and was recently served an eviction notice related to a companion animal, according to the lawsuit.

The California courts have been devastated by massive cuts and closures as the state has staggered through a historic budget shortfall.

Over the last several years, the budget for the state judicial branch — made up of 58 trial courts, six courts of appeal, one supreme court and a statewide policymaking body known as the Judicial Council — has had to absorb half a billion dollars in one-time reductions and more than a half-billion dollars in ongoing cuts, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said last week in a plea to state lawmakers to reinvest in the courts.

The chief justice said 22 court facilities have shut down, 114 courtrooms have closed, 30 courts have slashed their hours and more than 2,600 court employees have departed the branch through layoffs and attrition since January 2010.

In his January budget, the governor proposed transferring $200 million from trial court reserves to support court operations, which will delay some courthouse construction projects up to one year.

"What we once counted on — that courts would be open, available and ready to deliver prompt justice — no longer is true in California," Cantil-Sakauye said.

Hundreds of protesters reportedly converged on the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday to voice their displeasure at the court closures and the loss of jobs.

David Wesley, presiding judge of the L.A. County Superior Court, told the Los Angeles Times that the budget cuts necessitate the loss of jobs and other reductions.

"It affects victims, it affects defendants, it affects lawyers, it affects police departments, it affects families, it affects businesses, it affects the rich and the poor," he said, according to the paper. 

--Additional reporting by Erin Coe. Editing by Chris Yates.

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