A year after taking effect, court unification seems to be working, according to many local officials. But inadequate court technologies and facilities could cause major problems in the future, they say.

Officially approved by judges in the state's 58 counties last January, a year and a half after California voters passed Proposition 220 permitting judges to decide whether to unify their two-tier court systems, the merger consolidated the Los Angeles Superior Court with the county's 24 municipal courts, making the newly unified Superior Court the largest trial court of general jurisdiction in the nation.

Unification was expected to yield significant savings on overhead costs, help speed cases through the judicial system, increase the availability of public services and provide the courts with increased flexibility to shift judges and cases to minimize backlog.

"Among the many benefits of unification, one of the biggest is the court's increased flexibility to deliver public services," Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge James A. Bascue said. "For example, a new Domestic Violence Center just opened in the City of Inglewood in the former municipal court, so now victims can go there to get a temporary restraining order instead of having to go to Torrance, which is what they had to do under the two-tier system," he said.

Former Superior Court Presiding Judge Victor E. Chavez could not be reached for comment, but he has vigorously defended unification. In a letter to California Chief Justice Ronald M George, Chavez documented fiscal benefits at the Superior Court during the first six months of unification.

"Between Jan. 22 and June 5 the Los Angeles Superior Court has accrued $1,214,000 in fiscal savings, which includes over $900,000 in savings from the attrition of executive and managerial positions which will either not be replaced or will be filled at significantly lower levels," Chavez wrote.

California Chief Justice Ronald M. George is also positive about unification, according to Lynn Holton, spokeswoman for George and the Judicial Council of California, the constitutional entity charged with setting policy for the statewide court system.

"Justice George is especially pleased with the results in Los Angeles because the challenges are so much more difficult in L.A. simply because of its size, number of citizens its serves, number of municipal courts and size of its superior court." Holton said.

With 5,000 employees and 570 judges serving nearly 10 million people in 53 courthouses spread throughout a 4,000 square mile county, the L.A. Superior Court is the largest, most geographically sprawling, ethnically diverse court system in the world.

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