NEIGHBORHOOD POLITICS--The County of Los Angeles has made public input a priority as it grapples with the complicated and historic work of developing regulations for newly legalized cannabis in the unincorporated areas of the county.
POLICING THE POLICE-News reports last week suggest the city of Oakland may be ready to settle a civil lawsuit filed by the teenage woman at the heart of a sex-abuse scandal that rocked Oakland’s and other nearby police departments since 2015.
All things considered, the city is fortunate. The reported settlement is just under $1 million, far below the $66 million she had originally sought.
CONNECTING CALIFORNIA--Dig deep enough into any of California’s biggest problems, and you’ll eventually hit upon a common villain: our court system.
California’s housing shortage, its poverty, its poor business climate, and its failing infrastructure all are explained in no small part by the failure of our underfunded, delay-prone courts to provide anything resembling timely justice. But in public narratives of what’s wrong with the state, we have mostly let the courts dodge responsibility for their many crimes against California’s future.
This is, in part, because, our courts have been broken for so long that we’ve stopped expecting them ever to work. In the meantime, we have become lazily addicted to blaming our favorite perpetrators—our regulators, our politicians, our media, our unions, our businesses, and, more recently, President Trump—for our collective failure to build a state that meets its population’s needs.
But the biggest reason why we’ve allowed the courts to skate responsibility involves a public lack of understanding of the courts, and a resulting underestimation of their importance. State government has been treating the courts, which account for less than 3 percent of state spending, as a small problem, distinct from the state’s other maladies. But the courts’ impact is far larger than their budget imprint, making them a dangerously faulty foundation for our state’s economy and government.
If you want to block a project in California, your best bet is to get it into the courts, where you can delay for years until the project’s supporters can no longer afford to go forward. This happens regularly in California’s housing battles. But rather than blaming the courts, real estate types routinely blame a law—CEQA, the abbreviation for the California Environmental Quality Act—for the state’s struggles to build sufficient housing and infrastructure.
At a recent conference at Chapman University in Orange County, Emile Haddad, the chairman and CEO of FivePoint, the largest developer of mixed-use communities in coastal California (from the Great Park Neighborhoods in Irvine to Candlestick Point in San Francisco), pointed to the courts instead.
“I’m one of those probably odd developers who say they love CEQA,” he said, praising environmental laws that protect communities and add to quality of life and the value of housing.
The real problem, he said, is “the entire legal system.” He recounted a project that got local government approval in 2003, but still hasn’t happened, as his company is now litigating the project’s 30th lawsuit.
With each challenge or problem with permits, he loses even more years, Haddad said, because “I have to go through the same courts that have approved me already … because I cannot go directly back to the Supreme Court or the appellate court and tell them that I’ve done what they needed me to do.”
Such legal delays bear a heavy responsibility for our historic housing shortage and add to housing costs that are more than twice the national average. In turn, costlier housing is a huge factor in California’s highest-in-the-nation poverty rate and its high incidence of homelessness.
Poverty is now highest in coastal areas with the most development restrictions, which produce more litigation and costlier housing. And the clogged courts make it harder for poor people to challenge evictions from housing, or mistreatment by people and financial institutions that prey on the poor.
Such legal delays bear a heavy responsibility for our historic housing shortage and add to housing costs that are more than twice the national average. In turn, costlier housing is a huge factor in California’s highest-in-the-nation poverty rate and its high rate of homelessness.
The same court-related delays and resulting costs also plague any number of transportation and water projects, and of countless attempts to launch new businesses. The most high-profile example is the state high-speed rail project. While the state authority in charge of the project has drawn withering coverage for its mistakes—construction remains at an early stage, nearly nine years after voters approved the bonds for it—most of the delays involve the courts.
The state itself has a long history of using the courts to delay meeting even its meager funding obligations to schools and health programs. The state courts so utterly failed to resolve California’s prison overcrowding problems that federal receivers and the U.S. Supreme Court had to step in.
Meanwhile, the courts are being asked to do more with less. Newer reforms on criminal justice resources (Governor Brown’s realignment), sentencing (Propositions 47 and 57), and recreational marijuana (Proposition 64) have created new questions and petitions that boost court workloads.
At the same time, the Great Recession and budget crises were particularly tough on the courts. Thousands of court staffers have lost their jobs in the last decade, and more than 50 courthouses and 200 courtrooms have been shuttered. Delays have more than doubled; it now can take more than five years to have your civil complaint heard by a judge or jury. (One prominent lawsuit, by California local governments against lead paint manufacturers, is now 17 years old.)
Flat pay and a heavy workload have led to walkouts by court workers, and sparked bitter infighting among state judges. Court officers in 49 of 58 counties warned in a February letter to Gov. Brown that without more money in this year’s budget, they’ll need to cut existing levels of service.
The pressure on the courts would be even worse if the total number of court filings hadn’t declined by 25 percent over the last decade. But that may be bad news. Almost all the decline has been in small claims, challenges to infractions, and minor civil cases. Regular Californians have simply given up on seeking justice in our courts.
“Inadequate funding and chronic underfunding of the courts is just one way a justice system can become unjust,” warned California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in a recent speech, noting that since 2011 the state has added 6,408 laws while the judiciary budget lags.
I recently walked three blocks from my office to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse, the state civil courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. Like other central courthouses in California’s increasingly glittery city centers, the court building stands out as an eyesore, its exterior scars clashing with the new park and federal courthouse next to it.
Inside, nothing—from bathrooms to Wi-Fi—works particularly well. Lawyers receive trial dates that are usually more than two years in the future, court reporters are scarce, and overworked clerks scramble to keep things from breaking down. A lawyer acquaintance who took me around quoted Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, a 19th-century novel about the delays and injustice of England’s Court of Chancery.
Broken courts, Dickens wrote, promote a crippling fatalism through a society, “a loose belief that if the world go wrong, it was, in some off-hand manner, never meant to go right.”
It’s way past time for California to pull itself out of this Dickensian muck. Yes, fixing our court system—making it the fastest and most efficient in the country—would be challenging politically. But it also would be relatively cheap, just a couple billion more dollars a year in a state with a $150 billion budget and a $2.5 trillion economy.
Justice delayed is justice denied. This budget season, let’s return timely justice to the courts, and stop this crime against California’s future.
(Joe Mathews is Connecting California Columnist and Editor at Zócalo Public Square … where this column first appeared. Mathews is a Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)
THE POLITICS OF RACISM-I wanted to believe that Jeff Sessions is not a racist. I wanted to believe that even if he was a racist as a young man that he has since converted to a higher plane of thinking. I wanted to believe that he is a changed man because I believe that anyone is capable of redemption. After-all, St. Paul hunted down early Christians. Tolstoy was a slave owner. And Nelson Mandela almost blew up a school bus as a terrorist. We are all capable of undergoing unfathomable transformation if divine grace and luck have their way.
We are also capable of remaining the same for our entire lives. Like the calcium that never gets discovered, we can remain locked in sediment forever. As much as I wanted to believe Attorney General Jeff Sessions is no longer an old fashioned bigot from another time in our nation's history, his public words once again reveal a belief system that blatantly denigrates minorities and belittles the “other.”
Most recently, he said that he was “amazed” a judge in Hawaii could halt President Trump’s order blocking people from six predominately Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
As first reported on CNN, Trump’s top lawman said on The Mark Levin Show: “I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and constitutional power.”
The judge he is referring to is U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson, a Hawaii native, who issued an order March 15 that put a stop to Trump’s second attempt at an unconstitutional and immoral travel ban. Sessions’ Department of Justice is challenging this before the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco.
There are several aspects to Session’s flub that I find disconcerting as an American citizen. First, what is Sessions doing on “The Mark Levin Show?” How is this a sign of good sense, common decency, and legal impartiality? As the nation’s most influential broker of crime and punishment, and as the supreme arbiter of social justice, Jeff Sessions should know that Mark Levin is a media personality who makes a living inciting impassioned feelings that verge on hate speech. The very act of showing up on his program is a violation of his ethical duties.
Second, Sessions is “amazed” that a judge in Hawaii could halt the president because he has never held genuine respect for people of color. He has done everything that is required of him to not ruin his political career -- and he has been careful to strategically amend his views with the passage of time -- but Jeff Sessions has always held a derogatory opinion of minorities in this country. He has been especially brutish to African-Americans.
In 1986, a Senate committee denied Sessions, then a 39-year-old U.S. attorney in Alabama, a federal judgeship. His former colleagues testified Sessions used the n-word and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.”
That should have ended his rise to power. That is to say, if we lived in a non-racist society, those words would have stopped him cold in his tracks. We obviously live in a thoroughly racist society because the author of those words not only survived, he kept going all the way to the U.S. Capital.
Third, what difference does it make that it was a judge from an island? What if we replaced the word “island” with “judge from the ghetto?” What if we replaced the word “island” with “judge from Islam,” or “judge from the LGBTQ community?” What if the word “island” was replaced with “judge from the opposite sex?” We would think that he was out of touch, demeaning, uncouth, and politically stupid. We would say that he is not equipped for the role of United States Senator. He certainly is not capable of leading the nation's law enforcement apparatus in the 21st century. His ideas are outmoded. His worldview is archaic. His way of using power is both obsolete and ineffective.
The ideas that Sessions represents are dinosaurs that should have gone extinct as a result of the meteorite that was the Civil Rights Movement. Like a bridge between two eras, the Attorney General represents the reason we need to cross over into the promised land of a dream no longer deterred.
(George Cassidy Payne is a writer, photo journalist, SUNY Adjunct Professor of Humanities and a CityWatch guest contributor.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.