Tuesday, October 1, 2002
Davis Signs Bill Giving Ownership Of Courthouses to State
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Gov. Gray Davis waited until nearly the last minute but yesterday signed into law a host of bills affecting courts and the practice of law, including a measure that for the first time gives the courts, and not the counties, ownership and management of courthouses.
Davis was joined by Chief Justice Ronald M. George for the signing of Senate Bill 1732, which shifts governance of more than 450 court buildings around the state to the Judicial Council.
The measure directly affects the 58 courthouses in which the Los Angeles Superior Court currently operates.
Under a detailed procedure set forth in the bill, authored by state Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier, most of the county-owned buildings will be transferred to the court. Those facilities that include both court and county offices—and most courthouse include at the very least offices for the district attorney and public defender—are subject to negotiations and possible lease transactions.
George said Davis showed vision in signing the bill, which was co-sponsored by the Judicial Council and the California State Association of Counties.
“Today, the California trial courts can celebrate one of the most significant court reforms in history, as the state prepares to assume oversight and financial responsibility for California courthouses,” George said.
The measure was in some sense a continuation of the sweeping transition the courts have seen in the last decade with elimination of municipal courts through “unification” and the transfer of funding responsibility for trial court operations from counties to the state.
The legislative cornerstones of the revamping of court administration were the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997, trial court unification—set in motion by a statewide initiative in 1998—and the Trial Court Employment and Protection and Governance Act of 2001.
George has been a staunch backer of the reform efforts and frequently cited the danger of closure that many smaller trial courts faced in the early 1990s because of the poor financial condition of the rural counties in which they were located. Trial court funding has rescued those courts by capping the county funding responsibility.
But in Los Angeles County—with a Superior Court that accounts for at least one-third of the state’s trial court cases, courthouses, judges and costs—the court is struggling to make ends meet and is planning to lay off staff and close courtrooms.
The impact in Los Angeles of SB 1732—and of Senate Bill 371, also an Escutia bill signed by Davis yesterday, transferring responsibility for court interpreters to the courts—is still being evaluated by Superior Court staff, spokesman Kyle Christopherson said.
Transfer of responsibility for the courthouses is “a good thing,” Christopherson said, in part because the county had cut back on resources put toward upkeep in anticipation of the measure’s passage.
“This means that the state will take responsibility and hopefully do what we need to in terms of court maintenance,” Christopherson said.
On the interpreters, Christopherson said there were some “concerns we had about a possible negative impact and being able to maintain the level of service.”
Most court interpreters until now have been independent contractors.
The transfer of courthouses will take place over a three-year period. Buildings that are deemed historic can be retained by counties—but counties then must build new quarters equal in space and use to be utilized by the courts.
Davis said the transfer would complete the process of transforming a local court system into “a fully operational state system.”
“Now the court system can be managed and operated under the oversight of the Judicial Council, which can provide consistent policies and procedures to ensure the uniformity of how court operate on a statewide basis,” the governor said.
Davis also signed measures that will raise civil filing fees. The full amount of an initial filing fee in Los Angeles Superior Court could go up still further if the governor signs several other bills on his desk.
He had until midnight last night to act.
Measures Davis signed over the weekend and yesterday included AB 2574, a bill to bar financial conflicts of interest between private judging companies and their “clients” in consumer arbitrations. In an earlier form, several more sweeping arbitration reform bills would have, among other things, prevented state judges from becoming arbitrators for a year after retirement. In its final version, this bill restricts the financial relationships that arbitration firms can have with the parties that appear before them.
The governor also signed SB 1396, which clarifies the duties of the trial courts and the Judicial Council in handling court security through contracts with the county sheriff’s departments.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company