Civil Courts Feel Squeeze of '3 Strikes' Cases

BY STEPHANIE SIMON, Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1995

For the woman injured on a store's rickety stairs, the man bruised in a scuffle with police or the whistle-blower fired in malicious revenge, for everyone who looks to right bitter wrongs in Los Angeles County courts, Judge Gary Klausner frets.

That is because the onslaught of criminal cases filed under California's "three strikes" law has overwhelmed not only the criminal courts, but the civil division as well.

In unprecedented numbers, suspected killers, rapists and robbers who might otherwise accept plea bargains are demanding trials to fight off tough "three strike" penalties--including a double sentence for two strikes and a life term for three. Criminal judges simply cannot handle the load. But they are required by law to grant criminal defendants speedy trials.

So they have been forced to transfer criminal cases into civil courtrooms, pushing aside pending cases that range from medical malpractice claims to disputed business contracts.

"We can't do away with civil cases because that's what our society is based on," Klausner said. "But we can say, 'We'll get to you in five or six years.' "

Civil judges across California have felt the squeeze, but those in Los Angeles have been hit especially hard. The civil and criminal divisions in the county are considered to be the busiest in the world. (About 75,000 civil lawsuits are filed in Los Angeles Superior Court each year.)

Branches in Lancaster, Long Beach, Pomona and Torrance have virtually stopped handling civil cases. Courts in Burbank, Compton and Santa Monica take on just a few. And at least 30% of Downtown's 50 civil courtrooms are regularly knotted up with criminal matters, according to Klausner, who presides over the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

When civil trials do get under way, they remain a low priority. A few judges have had to scrap civil cases midstream and declare mistrials to make room for urgent criminal matters.

Beyond the scheduling headaches, the influx of murder and drug cases into the civil courthouse has sparked security concerns.

Downtown's graceful courthouse on Hill Street was designed to host civil cases--nothing more tempestuous than divorce. The courthouse has no metal detectors and only a tiny lockup. Shackled criminal defendants share hallways and ride elevators with the public. And most of the building's 17 entrances are unguarded.

"You or I could sneak in a bazooka to that courthouse without anyone knowing it, to say nothing of an automatic weapon that fits in a pocket, like an Uzi," attorney David Hoffman said. "The Downtown courthouse is an accident waiting to happen."

Given Los Angeles County's financial crisis, few jurists expect funding to boost security. Nor do they expect money to hire the additional 30 to 60 judges needed to keep up with a swelling caseload. The state has not added a single judicial slot since 1987, despite a 15% population gain.

Government officials "first hire more police, then hire more prosecutors, then put more money into jails," Klausner said. "It's a huge funnel that keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger, but the throat--the court system--is not expanding."

Despite funding constraints, a few jurisdictions have managed to deal with "three strikes" remarkably well.

In Orange County, Superior Court Judge Thomas N. Thrasher reported "no intrusion whatsoever from 'three strike' criminal cases" into the civil courthouse he supervises. Orange County has just 165 "second" and "third" strike cases pending, compared to about 6,000 on the dockets in Los Angeles County.

Warily watching Los Angeles' struggles, Thrasher has vowed to be ready if criminal trials ever begin to take over civil courtrooms in Orange County. To ease backlogs, he plans to ask attorneys to volunteer without pay to serve as temporary civil court judges. He has also initiated one-day "mini-trials" in which opposing litigants summarize their cases before six jurors, who then deliberate for an hour and issue an "advisory" verdict--a reality check designed to push both sides into settlement.

Los Angeles County has no such contingency plan.

The result: Civil cases filed Downtown are taking an extra two months to wrap up. And Klausner predicts that the delays will get longer.

"It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion," Superior Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper said. "We're seeing [the civil justice system] very slowly crumble."

Cooper speaks from experience. Although she is a civil judge, she has presided over more criminal than civil trials this year. She was forced to interrupt one civil trial two months ago when a criminal matter came up, and so far has not been able to resume it. Like most civil judges, she has worked in criminal courts and feels comfortable handling the cases.

But the delays on the civil side frustrate and frighten her. "People in our society live with the knowledge that if they need help, they can go to the courts and get it. If that system breaks down and we can't provide services, I don't know that anarchy is completely out of the question," Cooper said.

More often now, impatient litigants are shunning the public courts and seeking private justice. For roughly $300 an hour, they can hire retired judges to decide their cases swiftly.

And in a new twist, litigants in a Sheriff's Department brutality case recently rented an entire jury. With the Pomona District Court booked solid, each side agreed to ante up $1,625 a day for a private trial held in a Sheraton hotel and managed by Inland Valleys Arbitration Mediation Services of Ontario.

The jurors, recruited through a newspaper ad and paid $65 a day, were asked to decide whether sheriff's deputies beat a man in jail. After a weeklong trial and a day of deliberation, jurors decided in favor of the deputies. Even the losing attorneys praised the system as an ideal way to bypass achingly slow courts.

"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Tom Murphy, who represented the plaintiff. "This is not only an appropriate but a necessary vehicle for getting a case to trial. . . . Justice costs money, and anyone who doesn't agree is kidding himself."

But many lawyers do not agree.

Private trials "just feed on the idea that the wealthy and the privileged have a better shot at justice than the rest of us--or at least, a better shot at speedy justice," Westwood attorney Tom Dempsey said.

"It's a sad situation," civil rights attorney Laurence Labovitz said. "My clients are asking, 'Why, why, why? When do I get my day in court?' "

These days, that question may be impossible to answer. In some branch courts, lawyers on civil cases have been put on 48-hour notice--they wear a beeper and must be ready to start trial as soon as a courtroom frees up.

Even open courtrooms are no guarantee of prompt trials. Some judges have been unable to find enough jurors to serve on civil panels because criminal cases take priority. In Burbank, Hoffman said he was forced to accept a bench trial--where the judge decides the case--because the court could guarantee neither the time nor the bodies for a jury trial.

The reason is simple: Criminal defendants facing a mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence for a "third strike" felony have no incentive to plead guilty, so most demand a jury trial.

In the past, Los Angeles County prosecutors wrapped up 95% of their cases with guilty pleas. No longer. Since the law took effect in March, 1994, prosecutors have filed about 3,000 "third strike" cases--and less than half have been resolved, according to Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti.

The backlog is so huge that even if all Superior Court judges spent every day working through the pile, it would take them a year to resolve the pending "second" and "third strike" cases, Klausner said.

"We'd have to declare a moratorium on committing crimes for a year" just to catch up, said Judge Robert W. Parkin, the Superior Court's assistant presiding judge.

Supporters of the "three strikes" law insist that the number of cases will soon drop, as repeat offenders land behind bars and would-be criminals start to think twice about breaking laws in California.

"After we get past the initial front-load of cases, [the judicial workload] will go back to the level it was before, if not actually ease up," said Steve Telliano, press secretary for state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren. "It's like when a rat moves through a snake, it starts out really big and then as it moves through the snake, it gets down to almost nothing."

For now, however, the criminal cases keep on coming.

In Los Angeles, the Superior Court civil division handled 182 overflow criminal cases in 1994, Parkin said. This year, civil judges are on pace to handle about 800 criminal trials.

Meanwhile, the traditional civil workload has exploded. Domestic violence cases have soared 60% this year, Parkin said. And with the economy sagging, civil judges have had to appoint 400 receivers a month to deal with foreclosures.

Downtown judges have largely managed to keep major civil trials on track. Russell Frandsen, an attorney who deals with business disputes, said most of his Downtown cases are "moving along quite well at this point."

In many branches, however, civil matters are barely moving at all--which means litigants such as Shally Lin and Diane Harb must wait.

Lin, an accountant who contends that the city of Inglewood wrongfully fired her after she questioned officials' expense reports, expected her trial to begin in early February. Again and again, she has returned to the Torrance District Court ready to go. She is still waiting.

"It turns your life upside-down," Lin said. "You go through the trauma [of preparing for trial], then they put it off, then you have to pick it up and start all over again. It brings back the bad memories."

Plus, it increases the bill. Lin estimates she has spent an extra $5,000 to $6,000 because her lawyer has had to spend so much time reviewing data and rescheduling expert witnesses each time her trial date changes. "I'm kind of disappointed with the justice system," Lin said. "I'd like to have a chance at justice."

Harb, a Studio City resident who sued a restaurant for allegedly serving her salad containing a jaw-busting piece of metal, finally gave up on courtroom justice altogether.

Her trial in Long Beach was postponed a few times and interrupted twice during jury selection.

Fed up and drained, Harb recently settled her case for an undisclosed sum. Looking back, she describes the long wait as both emotionally and financially punishing. She never got her day in court--and that, Harb said, "concerns me as a citizen."

In the hectic halls of Los Angeles County Superior Court, Judge Klausner shares Harb's concerns.

He welcomes arbitration, mediation and even private jury trials--as long as people turn to them willingly, not out of despair and rage. But he fears that litigants may soon feel shut out of the courts that their tax dollars support.

"As we sit here today, there is still appropriate access" to civil courts, he said. "But whether that's going to be true in the future, only a fortuneteller could know. The indications now are not favorable."

Copyright 1995/The Times Mirror Company End