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.

Combine that with the fact that after unification the number of case filings increased from 302,000 in 1999 to nearly 3 million last year, and it's easy to see why unification has been so challenging and controversial , from the start.

Study cites benefits

A new study released by the Administrative Office of Courts confirmed that unification has resulted in major benefits to the California judicial system. Released on Nov. 29, the report is the first study on trial court unification since Prop 220 was approved in 1998.

Among the key findings are that many courts have improved public services through reorganization and reallocation of judicial and staff resources; that the courts have significantly expanded community programs, such as domestic violence, drug and juvenile courts; that court operations are becoming more efficient as administrative operations are reorganized along functional, rather than jurisdictional lines; and that local rules, policies and procedures are being standardized to support countywide operations.

But the study also cited some major problems that may prove intractable in future years if not addressed. For example, limitations on court technologies and facilities are becoming increasing apparent as courts, which are much larger and more complex now, attempt to deliver services to the public on a countywide basis.

To help resolve these kind of problems, the state legislature is expected to dole out over $24 million to the Superior Court this year. Most of those funds will be used to defray the costs of upgrading computer systems, improving court facilities and building special complex-litigation courts.

While state funding will help reduce fiscal tensions associated with unification, most court officials agree that it will take more than money for unification to succeed on a long-term basis.

"Unification is a major organizational change and it will take a number of years for the court to digest the change administratively. Whether it succeeds in doing this depends on whether there is effective judicial and administrative management, whether the court listens to the public and whether the court makes sure it does not neglect substantial constituencies as it tries to reshape itself in coming years," said Richard Burdge, a partner at the L.A. law firm of Howrey Simon Arnold & White LLP, who has written several articles on the impact of unification.

Troubled beginnings

Initially proposed in 1998, the plan for unification drew immediate criticism and resistance, mostly from trial attorneys worried about judicial assignments and Superior Court judges concerned about case management and potential voting rights violation lawsuits, according to Bascue.

"The initial vote was 70 percent against and 30 percent in favor of unification, but through education, planning and many internal discussions we were able to turn that vote around to 70 percent in favor and 30 percent against last year" he said.

When unification was finally approved, public criticism on the part of attorneys and judges subsided, but their underlying fears and concerns did not disappear.

"The major complaint among trial lawyers is that there are a lot of municipal court judges who in the old system were handling misdemeanor trials, arraignments or limited jurisdiction small-claims cases who suddenly became Superior Court judges eligible to preside over all sorts of complicated cases with multiple defendants and complex issues which, by virtue of their background and experience, they aren't used to handling," Burdge said. "It's a sensitive issue because it's not fair to say that municipal judges aren't qualified to try these kind of cases, but it's a big concern," Burdge said.

Jacquelyn Lacey, director of central operations for the L.A. District Attorney's Office said that many district attorneys express similar concerns about unification.

"The fear among many district attorneys is that inexperienced judges will be trying complicated cases. There were also concerns that we were going to have to take our most experienced DA's out of special units and put them in places like Alhambra, so we were concerned that we wouldn't be able to keep up in terms of staffing, but so far that hasn't been a problem," Lacey said.

Despite the concerns expressed in some quarters, court officials said a number of factors made unification inevitable. Among those were the rapidly escalating rate of litigation in L.A. in recent years, the growing breadth and complexity of those cases and the increasing demographic and linguistic diversity of the county, all of which was placing growing demands on an already over-burdened community of court translators and stenographers.

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