Friday, November 7, 2003
Research Attorneys’ Leader Asks State Senate to Probe Court Conduct
By DAVID WATSON, Staff Writer
The head of a union representing Los Angeles Superior Court research attorneys has asked a state Senate committee to investigate allegations the court violated the law by changing promotional policies affecting them.
The development is the latest in a dispute over the court’s decision to stop automatically promoting law clerks who satisfactorily complete two years of work to research attorney positions.
Research attorney Michael W. Boggs, president of Local 910 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, asked state Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, to look into the dispute in a letter dated Wednesday. Escutia heads the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Escutia’s chief of staff, Suzanne Wierbinski, said yesterday the senator’s office had not yet received the letter.
Boggs asserts in the letter that the court is guilty of “systematic violations” of the Trial Court Employment Protection and Governance Act. The court’s policy changes “will result in almost every law clerk being terminated without cause” after two years of work in violation of Government Code Sec. 71651(b), the union president says.
Sec. 71651(b) permits dismissing trial court employees only “for cause” or where “organization necessity” requires layoffs.
A court spokesperson declined to comment on the letter yesterday, but a March memorandum from Presiding Judge Robert A. Dukes explained that the number of research attorneys had grown by more than 50 percent in the previous 18 months.
“The unintended increase in the number of Research Attorney positions raised the Court’s salary and employee benefits expenditures by $590,000 annually,” Dukes said in his memo. In the future, the memo explained, law clerks would be promoted only if a vacant research attorney position was available.
The union and the court are entering the final year of a three-year contract, the court’s first ever with the lawyers who review filings and research legal issues for judges. The unit voted to organize in 1999, reflecting the court’s move over time from a staff made up of recent graduates transitioning into the profession to one including career employees.
Prior to the contract, staff members who were members of the State Bar were called research attorneys and those who were not were called law clerks, but all were considered temporary employees. Under the contract, however, research attorneys are, in effect, civil servants not subject to termination without cause after a six-month probationary period.
Law clerks are hired for one year, renewable for a second year, following which they can become research attorneys if they receive positive evaluations. Completion of the two-year clerkship is a prerequisite for hiring as a research attorney.
Boggs’ letter says the court violated Government Code Secs. 71634.1 and 71634.2 by failing to give the union notice of the changes and an opportunity to meet and confer about them. Boggs also cited Sec. 71601(m), enacted after the union contract was adopted, which limits temporary employment in the trial courts to 180 days.
The court responded to that change in the law by creating “a new status called ‘limited term’” for the law clerks, who previously were classified as “temporary” employees, the letter says.
Local 910 also represents the law clerks.
When the union sought arbitration over the policy changes, the court “repeated[ly] stalled” the process, Boggs claims. Under the union’s contract, the arbitration, which was requested in May, should have been completed by August, the letter explains, adding that the court last week announced it “could not be able to go forward with the arbitration hearing before the end of March 2004.”
Boggs asked the Judiciary Committee, “following verification of my statements, to inquire into the reasons for the court’s lawless behavior.” His letter suggests that one solution to the problem “may be as simple as dividing up the Los Angeles Superior Court into smaller units.”
“If similar violations are present throughout California, the problem may lie in the structure of the trial court system, wherein absolute authority is vested in each county’s Presiding Judge, who for all intents and purposes is accountable to no one and who is isolated from reality by a cocoon of bureaucrats who control the flow [of] information. Whatever the problem turns out to be, that problem needs to be remedied. No court system can expect the citizens to obey the law when the court system itself refuses to do so.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company