The Courts Today
by Judge Rudolph A. Diaz
hen I was the Chief Deputy in the Federal Public Defenders office in Los Angeles over 15 years ago, it was my job to look out for and defend the rights of people who were charged with offenses they could not otherwise defend themselves against. My stock in trade was people who depended on those who, like myself, would ensure their rights were protected as American citizens before the courts of the nation.
When I became a municipal court judge in 1980, I soon realized that I was, in many respects, still a defenderbut of something more precious than any single persons rights. I now held the trust of seeing that the rights of all people, embodied in the Constitution, were preserved and that laws were applied equally and fairly. Today, with the perspective of many years of judging and several years viewing the judiciary from an oversight capacity, I understand and enjoy that role more than ever.
I like to work with people and make a positive impact upon their lives. As a judge, I see constant opportunities for this.
Particularly since working with the Drug Courtwhere we handle only drug offenses and treat each offender individually, giving them a rehabilitative sentence to encourage them to get and stay free of drugsI have encountered many people who told me that their lives had changed and that things had really come around for them after participating in our programs.
But there are problems associated with the administration of justice, and the courts often cant or dont serve as well as they should. There are many ways in which the court can improve its relationship to the public, and vice versa.
Access to Justice
In California and in many other states we have seen the passage of three strikes legislation. Though there are distinctions from state to state, the core principle is always that an offender with two or three offenses behind him is at a far higher risk of a severe sentence which would involve incarceration.
The fact is that one of the negative aspects of this law in California and across the country is that it greatly increases the quantity of cases which get tried by judges and juries, as the defendants have a great deal more at stake. Thus, they have less time for civil cases and more cases get backlogged. To help offset this, municipal courts have tried to help the superior courts by taking some of their caseload; but, the caseloads have just continued to expand faster than anyone can keep pace.
In Southern California, it means that the results of seven years of largely successful delay-reduction efforts could easily be lost, and private judging and alternate methods of dispute resolution will become more and more necessary.
There is another issue this raises, which is quite close to home for most judges. It is the degree to which they are allowed to exercise their judgment and treat each defendant as an individual, not a statistic. Many who feel strongly about three strikes feel that it must be applied literally, with no discretion. Most judges, myself included, feel that this simply isnt fair to the defendants in many cases; examples of this are numerous. In short, fairness rarely includes arbitrariness.
The positive side of this is that I believe that the three strikes laws will have a long-term deterrent effect. But it is important that its impact on the judicial system itself is understood.
Another aspect of access to justice is financial. A persons financial resources are too often the deciding factor of whether he can or cant utilize his rights in the justice system. Ive seen and heard of many cases of people criminally charged who, due to lack of money, were unable to meaningfully defend themselves or obtain adequate representation. Instead, they were forced to take the path of least expense and resistance and plead guilty to an offensesimply because they could not afford to sit in a time-consuming trial or otherwise show that they were innocent.
But if we look at how court time ties into the issue of money, we see another side. A person with little financial resources accused of a minor criminal offense may get just minutes of court time, even though his record, his ability to obtain desired employment or even his liberty may be at stake. Yet a civil business dispute between two well-to-do parties will routinely receive months of court time and attention.
This problem is not limited only to the criminally charged. There is also the person who has suffered the loss of his rights or been cheated and whose only remedy seems to be through the courtsbut how can he get there? The cost of hiring good civil lawyers is so great as to virtually guarantee that only the financially robust can even bring a grievance to court.
I have spoken to a number of attorneys who want to do something about this problem. One innovative solution which I have heard of is attorney organizations which are sponsored by major corporations to provide legal services to the underprivileged. Each lawyers annual salary and expenses are paid by his sponsor, and he in turn takes on people in need of legal services as his clients. Such organizations have appeared in California and across the country.
While we have to go much further to solve the problem of money controlling access to the courts, I think that efforts like these are positive and should be both encouraged and expanded.
One of the areas which Ive felt was in need of change for some time is the handling of individuals charged and convicted of crimes.
I dont feel that society is best served by simply locking people up. Statistically, this has hardly been shown to be a deterrent to crime. Real rehabilitation programs, and giving people with certain types of convictions, such as drug offenses, the chance to work with the court and clean themselves upand prove that they can stay cleanactually save money and help the individuals concerned to make real lives for themselves.
Programs such as the Drug Court are very positive, but they are also too scarce. Citizens and the courts should both work more toward rehabilitation and doing more with individuals to replace their unlawful ways with constructive and positive ones which they can then use in life.
Essentially, I think that everyone who comes before the court should be treated as an individual, and if they are given a chance to change their lives for the betterand they do soeveryone wins. And we lose one criminal in the process as he becomes a contributing citizen again.
Punitive (meaning, literally to punish) damages is another area where reform is needed. Regardless of whether or not you support punitive damages caps (which would limit awards to a set amount or some multiple of the actual damages), no one can deny that huge awards almost always result in undeserved enrichment. The plaintiff shows he suffered damage, proves to what degree he did, and, if he prevails, is given a monetary award matching what he was able to prove.
But if the judge or jury deems it appropriate to punish the defendant by way of an additional, punitive damages award, under the current system, the plaintiff gets all of that, too. But why? It wasnt money he lostotherwise, it would be a part of the actual, or compensatory, damages award.
One innovative solution Ive heard for this is to require one-third of all punitive damages awards to go to the courts or local governments. This could then go toward much-needed improvements in the courts and their facilities, such as remedying uncomfortable courtrooms and jury rooms in some courts, which are really unfair to both the judges and the jurors who use them.
In any case, it is an issue fertile for improvement.
In my many years in Los Angeles, Ive seen two major incidents of civil unrest which related to justice issues: the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The awful acts of violence and destruction were certainly criminal; but they were also acts of mistrust. Both were, without a doubt, partly the result of lack of confidence in the courts and the justice system.
We have a different situation today, but many of the issues which were sensitive or explosive in 1965 and 1992 are still so today: prejudice, uneven treatment, injustice. I grew up in Compton, California, and I understand these issues from all sides. Like most who grew up around me, I was taught to suspect the police and other law enforcement.
The best way to overcome these barriers is to help people get involved and better understand the judicial system. After all, it is a product of their collective direction and the officials they elected to govern them. And it contains many strong points, all intended to treat citizens fairly and guarantee access to justice.
Many courts in California hold community law days and similar opportunities for the public and the judges to meet, talk and understand each other better. Such activities should be undertaken very broadly and I hope to see these nationwide. The important thing is to better understand the system, and to learn how to work with itand resolve grievances when they exist.
I also feel that seeing more diversity amongst the bench and bar, which we have seen much more of in recent years, has its part.
The judicial system, with all of its problems, has often served us well and it was clearly the intention of the founding fathers to see it succeed. I think the most important issue from the bench itself is to stress equity over rigidity and to encourage more rehabilitation alternatives which offer successful programs. The public also needs to see that they are heard and that they communicate their concerns in forums where they can be voiced.
By the same token, we must all be mindful of the importance of not letting the judiciary become further politicized. A judges job is to follow the law, not serve a political end or an ideological agenda. So long as this is understoodon both sidescommunication and efforts to enhance understanding of both sides should be undertaken and should prove worthwhile.
There is much room for improvement in the judiciary. But there are also many innovative judges and people willing to take risks to save time, money and enhance the system. I encourage them, and I encourage you to learn more and support those efforts that do the most to make the judiciary stronger and more efficient.
Judge Diaz sits on the Los Angeles Municipal Court in Rio Hondo, California. He is the past president of the California Judges Association and has also served as chairman of the Presiding Judges Association of California for Los Angeles County Municipal Courts.