Judge Linda Lefkowitz, who is head of the personnel and budget committee of the Los Angeles Superior Court, anticipates possible reductions in security spending an unsettling prospect given the recent shootings involving judges in Atlanta and Chicago. Budget cuts already have impacted court operations at the Santa Monica Courthouse, where Lefkowitz is based in her post as supervising judge of the six courthouses in the West District. In order to save money, that courthouse moved its criminal cases to the Airport Courthouse near Los Angeles International Airport. As a judge, Lefkowitz begins her day by hearing harassment cases and issuing restraining orders, sometimes for celebrities.


Question: What are your thoughts on the recent shootings at an Atlanta courthouse?
Answer:
I found myself watching who was driving behind me, which I don't ever do. My brother called me long distance to tell me I should quit. I had been parking out in the city parking lot, just directly south of here, because it's an easy entrance, rather than walk all the way around from the secured lot; I started parking back in the secured lot. But it's something that you learn to live with, something you discuss with your bailiff constantly. We have a judicial protection unit that is very, very responsive to any threats. I have received U.S. mail threats periodically, and we turn them over to them. But no one can be protected 24 hours a day.


Q: Why is there such a risk for violence at the courthouses?
A:
This is a very volatile population, and many of them are very angry when they get here , and very angry when they leave. We deal with people who are at the end of their ropes many times. I see a lot of people who have a range of mental problems when they come in here in the morning. At a minimum, many of them are very depressed, very frustrated.


Q: How have cuts in security impacted the courts?
A:
We just finished this small building out here and at this point don't have any extra security in that building. We don't have any bailiffs out there because they're three civil courtrooms. So far, it's worked. As you can see in Atlanta, you never know until you're tested, and you certainly don't ever want to be. We tried to make the cuts in areas we feel will not unduly compromise the public or people who work here. In a lot of corporate cases, we really don't anticipate there will be a problem. We do have them in criminal courts, in family courts, in small claims court.


Q: How would more cuts in security affect the courts?
A:
We had two X-rays operating and now we have one. That means the lines get longer.


Q: How do you foresee the overall budget situation this year?
A:
We'd like some additional judges so we can have some additional courts to handle the population growth in the Santa Clarita Valley, North Valley and Eastern parts of the county. Right now, we don't expect the cuts to be as deep as last year because we made so many cuts last year there's not a lot of room to cut very much more. There is talk of an additional security reduction, but I don't think our court has progressed to the point where we've had discreet ideas on how we would cut if we need to.


Q: How have budget cuts affected your courthouse?
A:
We moved all our criminal cases down to the Airport. Originally, this court handled a lot of felonies in the city of Santa Monica and West L.A. Unfortunately, as you know, we had huge budget cuts last year and those were centered in the security area. Now, if you're a witness or defendant, you have to travel all the way down, south of the 105 to the Airport Courthouse, which is quite a distance.


Q: How do you manage L.A. Superior without knowing what your budget is?
A:
We're operating right now on the worst-case scenario. We aren't holding jury trials on Fridays, so we can have staff take Fridays off without pay if they wish to. We laid people off, we've been selectively hiring only as needed. You end up kind of in a pendulum. You spend when you have it because you know three years down the line you're not going to have anything. It's probably not the most rational budgeting, but it's all you can do.


Q: Describe your job.
A:
I supervise the entire West District. We have courtrooms ranging from the Airport Court all the way up to Malibu. Because we have six courthouses soon to be five because they're closing Culver City the distances I have to drive mean I can't handle a jury trial case or very many cases. Once every couple of weeks, something comes in that is really quite interesting. For example, because of the landslides, we've had cases where someone needed some quick remedial relief. Other than that, I handle harassment issues.


Q: Why harassment?
A:
They're finite cases. If I am handling a construction dispute, that case will be with me for probably two years. I cannot possibly sit all day with a case, and I certainly can't try one. There's no time to do that (because of administrative responsibilities). So you handle all the short matters. And I'm pretty much done by 11 a.m.


Q: You seem to end up with celebrity harassment cases.
A:
It's only their lawyers. They never come in. It ends up in Santa Monica because celebrities live or work in the district or it happened in the district. Anything on the Westside tends to be filed here.


Q: What other kinds of cases end up in the Santa Monica courthouse?
A:
We have a fairly tight calendar of entertainment law cases: Movie deals that require litigation because we're in that part of the county. We have a lot of medical malpractice cases here because we have large hospitals UCLA, St. John's, Santa Monica all in this district. It's particularly cosmetic surgery. We have Coastal Commission cases, which most of the districts don't have.


Q: What is your background?
A:
I was appointed by Gov. Wilson in 1993 to the Los Angeles Municipal Court. I was appointed again by Gov. Wilson to Superior Court. My first assignment on the Superior Court was down in the criminal courts building downtown. I was there for a couple of years. Then I went over to the Beverly Hills Courthouse. I stayed there almost a year until I came over here.


Q: Did you always want to be a judge?
A:
I was going to be a teacher and took an education class and realized I'm not very good at it. So I stayed home. That's what you were supposed to do unless you could teach. I never really thought about law school. And then on my 30th birthday, when my little one was 4 and my daughter was 7, I thought, "I don't really have the patience for this." I took this class at Cal State Northridge in constitutional law. It was just extraordinary, and I thought, "I'm going to go to law school" without even thinking about how hard it would be or how much time it would take.


Q: Did you know what kind of law you wanted to be in?
A:
No, not at all. The last year of law school, I had taken an internship that involved really interesting constitutional law, and I stayed with that. When that was winding down, I did a clerkship in the appellate department of L.A. Superior Court. Then, I met some city attorneys in the process of doing that who said, "You ought to come over and interview" and I did. I was there for 13 years.


Q: What do you like about your job?
A:
As a judge, I only have an obligation to do what I sincerely think is the correct thing to do. Sometimes it's easier for us as judges than it is for attorneys because they have to zealously represent someone so they have to take a position. And I don't have to take a position. And I really do love to write.

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