Five years of brutal statewide budget cuts in the judiciary are about to hit close to home, and the near-homeless, in Los Angeles County.
Without last-minute intervention, poor and disabled people in the county will have a harder time gaining access to courts that resolve landlord-tenant disputes.
L.A. County Superior Court is closing 21 of 26 courts that handle “unlawful detainers,” actions that require a landlord to follow a strict eviction procedure for protecting the Fifth Amendment rights of a tenant. By restricting unlawful detainer access to just five courthouses, some tenants could have to travel as far as 32 miles for a court appearance.
The Superior Court also plans to eliminate 511 positions by June, bringing to 24% the percentage of employees the court has lost over the last four years, officials told the Los Angeles Times.
Last week, several legal aid groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, arguing that persons with limited resources and mobility would lose the ability to defend their rights in court. The suit claims the court closures violate the Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the First and 14th Amendments.
A lot of people are affected. More than 67,000 eviction lawsuits were filed in Los Angeles County courts during the past fiscal year, court spokeswoman Mary Hearn told the Los Angeles Times.
The lawsuit was filed by the Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and the Disability Rights Legal Center on behalf of two affected individuals and four nonprofits: Union de Vecinos, the Coalition for Economic Survival, People Organized for Westside Renewal and the Independent Living Center of Southern California.
The suit was filed against Presiding Superior Court Judge David Wesley, the State of California, Governor Jerry Brown, and L.A. Superior Court Clerk John Clarke.
The closure plan is just one of many painful, and legally questionable, moves that the state judicial system will be announcing as it grapples with a budget shortfall of between $56 million and $85 million. Courts have lost $1 billion in funding over the last five years.
California Supreme Court Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, in her state of the judiciary speech last week, said, “I am afraid California is on the wrong side of history when it comes to its funding of justice.”
In addition to cutbacks in service, Cantil-Sakauye warned that budgetary pressure was fundamentally changing how the justice system worked.
“All of us worry that the judicial branch may become a user-fee institution and that the ever-increasing fines and penalties are falling on those least able to afford it,” she said.