Sun, Jul

Save the Court: The Contract to Provide Local Justice Still Stands

RANDOM LENGTHS - No one seems particularly shocked, angered or insulted that the county will be closing all courtrooms in 10 community courthouses throughout the region–a move considered because of budgetary considerations.
I am not shocked. But I am angered and insulted because the establishment of the 100-year-old court in San Pedro was one of the many promises that the City of Los Angeles made to the citizens of the once independent City of San Pedro. This was a part of the deal to be “consolidated” into the larger municipality.
For a very long time, I’ve heard the old timers repeat the refrain that Los Angeles “promised us a courthouse.” So, when I heard the news about the San Pedro courthouse being closed, I went looking for the documentation that verified this memory.
I called a local judge who grew up here, but he didn’t know where to look. I talked with Art Almedia, the former president of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society. He told me to call the archives down at the Beacon Street City Hall in Pedro. Anne Hansford, the historical society’s archivist, knew exactly what I was looking for.
“The Consolidation Report from 1909,” she replied to my somewhat poor description of the document. “Yes we have a copy here.”
The actual full title sheds a bit more light: Report of the Consolidation Committee of Los Angeles, Filed with and Approved by the City Council June 8, 1909 to the City Council and civic bodies of the City of Los Angeles and the Board of Supervisors of Los Angeles County, California. Quite a title for a modest 13-page report. But within it, it says quite a bit about what we, the citizens of the former cities of San Pedro and Wilmington should expect from our adopted (consolidated) city. Not the least of which is the development of a “port of free commerce” that is “financially able to bear the burden of the bond issues required to carry forward this great project.” This was an endeavor justified by the welfare of Southern California and the entire Southwest due to the opening of the Panama Canal.
In exchange for our forebears vote to consolidate with Los Angeles, this report recommended (and later ratified by the Los Angeles City Council) 11 actions for San Pedro and 12 for Wilmington. For San Pedro, the seventh recommended action item reads as follows:
That a police station, with a sufficient number of officers and men, be at once established in that portion of the consolidated city … to safely guard and protect the interest of said portion … and that a department of the Police Court, properly officered, be established therein.
Now the question remains:
After all these years, after police courts and justice courts were merged into municipal courts in 1926 and later, after the county took control of the municipal courts,  and later after the municipal courts were merged with the state court system by Proposition 220 in 1998, does the city or the County of Los Angeles still owe San Pedro a court? Or does California, as a “successor of interest,” have an obligation to keep this court open?
Of even greater importance is whether the people of the San Pedro Harbor Area and Los Angeles County, in general, will stand for the tyranny of austerity budgeting that threatens to limit our access to the justice system through distance and inconvenience. Reasonable access to the legal system is a right not a privilege.
To elaborate this point on inconvenience and access, think of this:
The Superior Court, in its infinite wisdom, is redirecting certain types of cases to specific courthouses for a more “efficient” adjudication of justice. Small claims actions will be “hubbed” out of the Inglewood Courthouse and all unlawful detainers, landlord-tenant evictions, will be heard in the Long Beach Courthouse.
This means that the next time a small business owner in the Harbor Area wants to sue for a business debt, both the plaintiff and the defendant would have to drive to Inglewood, as would everybody else in the entire county.
Likewise, any landlord or tenant in Inglewood would have to drive to Long Beach to have their day in court. Does any of this make logistical sense? This actually is pretty stupid from the citizens point of view.
From the legal system’s administrative standpoint, I’m sure it does make sense.  But the costs to the general public in terms of travel time, lost work hours or shear hassle factor are not being considered. This is a nightmare! A nightmare foretold by our ever-increasing enforcement costs of the Three Strikes law, the death penalty, the war on drugs and our paranoia of escalating crime.
In the City of Los Angeles, we’re willing to pay to maintain a 10,000 officer force, but not a cent more for the justice system to prosecute the criminals. And, what’s more is that there is not enough budget or jails to house those already convicted of nonviolent misdemeanors so that they serve even half of their sentences. Yet, we continue to budget billions of dollars for Homeland Security, billions more for a drug war that we continue to lose. And, can’t seem to realize that legalization of pot would give both revenue and relief to a justice system that is distraught with enforcing certain laws that can no longer be enforced effectively.
In the end, our civil society, our very legal rights to reasonable access to justice both, civil and criminal, are threatened to the point of being dysfunctional. Generally, denial of reasonable access is in fact a denial of justice. In the specific case of the San Pedro Courthouse, I argue it is also a breach of contract.
It is a part of what the city promised San Pedro 103 years ago. If they wish to cancel one part of this agreement, then it calls into question the entire contract. Furthermore, there is the legal question of which is responsible for providing a court in San Pedro as “successors in interest to the obligation”: the county or the state?  Note here that when the State of California consolidated the current San Pedro Courthouse, when it was run by the county, the state paid nothing for the property.
To cap this off, my source inside the court says that most of the judges have come to the conclusion that the state consolidation of county courts into one giant system operated by the State’s Administrative Office of Courts was one of the biggest boondoggles ever perpetrated on the people of California. I am beginning to agree.
Join me in saving the San Pedro Courthouse!
(James Preston Allen is the Publisher of Random Lengths News and an occasional contributor to CityWatch. More of Allen and other views and news at  randomlengthsnews.com where this column was first posted) –cw
Vol 10 Issue 96
Pub: Nov 27, 2012

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