Wed, Apr

Some Useful Choices I Wish We Had on the Ballot


GELFAND’S WORLD - There is very little left to say about this election. Caruso has run another umpteen million dollars worth of television ads.

His latest is ostensibly a love letter from his children talking about what a wonderful dad and overall person he is. He should have run this one 8 months ago and backed off on the personal attacks against Karen Bass. He still hasn't run an ad explaining how the city is going to pay for those homeless shelters or the half-thousand new sanitation department employees. 

In the east, midwest, and south, the elections look to be close, and the stakes are pretty monumental. Not as monumental as if there were a Republican president, but important nevertheless. The ugly part of the scenario is that the Republicans can win majorities in both houses of congress without ever even reaching a tie in the number of people they would represent. That's the effect on giving every state the same number of senators and allowing gross gerrymandering that the Roberts court has sanctified. 

The counter to the above is that in 2024, after two years of horror shows -- particularly in the House of Representatives -- we would be placed for a blue wave in the following election. And in 2024, the voters will probably have seen Trump's tax returns and possibly the results of several civil trials and one or more criminal prosecutions. 

But this is all speculation on the night before the night of. We'll see results by Thursday or Friday, even if the big baby refuses to accept a Dr Oz loss in Pennsylvania (could be really close) and doubles down on election denial. 

Elections we should not be having 

It's too late to try to influence all you voters about the local races. And I don't have anything in particular to complain about in terms of the security of our election apparatus. I assume, based on seeing the system in action over many elections, that the Los Angeles County ballot collection and vote counting systems are generally pretty honest and pretty efficient. The way to make sure that voting is honest is just to watch every step of the process, which people are doing. I do believe that back in the bad old days, there was manipulation by political machines, but the ones that were really effective just turned out enough votes to keep control by making sure that the votes were really there. Obviously this wasn't always the case (one of the LBJ elections being the premiere example) but in places like Chicago, the Daley machine used patronage effectively, and presumably didn't have to resort to ballot box stuffing. If they had, Mike Royko would have nailed them. In Minneapolis, maybe not quite so clean. 

So what is there to complain about in the local and statewide election scheme? There's one obvious place to start, and that argument will insidiously lead to a different gripe. 

Which judges should you vote for? 

Answer: Hell if I know. 

And why don't I know? 

I don't have enough information. Let's expand on that a bit: There are lots of courtrooms and lots of judges, and different judges do different kinds of things. There are courts where newly arrested people are first brought before a judge to hear charges, there are courts where murder trials and burglaries are heard, and there are all sorts of civil actions taking place in everything from Superior courts to small claims courts. 

My experience in watching judges in action is that most are fairly soft spoken but expect to be heard and to be obeyed. I've seen at least one judge who was downright mean, dishing out abuse to lawyers and witnesses alike. I've heard from practicing attorneys about how abusive some judges could be. Apparently sitting up on the high bench sometimes results in a god complex. Such judges should be retired by the voters if that is the only means available. 

But there is a more serious issue which goes to the quality of legal thought. The American people have had a whopping great dose of bad thought in the form of the Supreme Court case that overturned Roe v Wade last summer. That opinion is what I heard from well respected legal scholars who read that verdict as pure partisan politics with little or no defensible legal reasoning behind it. 

But when it comes to the hundreds of decisions that involve the interpretation of the law and the Constitution in all the courts, lower and higher, in Los Angeles County, how are the rest of us to know about the quality of thought on the part of the judge? 

I strongly suspect that there are plenty of lawyers who not only understand the law but face multiple judges over the course of a year. It would be helpful if a wide ranging set of these lawyers kept score on which judges do a good job and which judges make fools of themselves. Are there many such judges? How should I know? 

But considering how much power the judges have over you and me, it is imperative that we make sure that the ones up there on the bench have the right stuff. Right now, all we have is the right to vote to retain each judge after a number of years of service. But most voters, myself included, have run out of time and patience in our election research before we get to the judges. The best I can do is get a list from somebody I trust, and that person probably did pretty much the same thing. Put it this way: Should we trust our liberties, our misdemeanor trials, and our divorces to people chosen by some committee at the Los Angeles Times? 

As the country and the rest of the world has been reminded recently, the system with regard to federal judges is even worse. The Supreme Court has been degraded by Trump appointments, but has been a partisan battleground for decades. But at the lower levels, it can be just as bad. Here's one famous example: 

In his later years, Manuel Real was well known for being a brute, as described in detail by noted author Joe Matthews, which you can read here. Manuel Real was respected when he was a lot younger, but at some point became a tyrant, and worse, became a tyrant who was a bad judge. Under the U.S. Constitution, there was nothing to be done (outside of impeachment, which was actually considered) other than to wait for the bad judge to die or retire. Since the judicial appointment system is totally partisan at the federal level at the moment, we can't expect much in the way of reform, but we have a right to expect that reform and we should be calling for it. 

At the state level, we need a better system for appointing judges, and perhaps elections are not the best way to decide on their retention. If we are going to continue with judicial elections, then the people who know about such things -- lawyers, litigants, people who are brought before a judge from the city jail, and other judges should provide us with an honest checklist of each judge's qualifications and temperament. And let's agree that temperament is an extremely important part of the equation. 

As long as we're talking about the courts . . . 

How about a bill of rights for jurors? 

I've been called for jury duty four or five times in my life. It used to be a two week haul, where people sat in the waiting room in the Long Beach court house from Monday through Friday, and then for another Monday through Friday. Nowadays the system is partially reformed, but in my view could use a little more. Let's consider. 

I never did the two week stretch. It had been reduced to one trial or one day. Usually it involved driving from my home in San Pedro over to Long Beach at the crack of dawn, going up an escalator (that was often broken) to the top floor, and waiting. And waiting. And then some small group would be called to some courtroom, but it was never me. And finally, near the end of the day, they would announce that the day was over and we were all free to go -- but first we should collect the little green sheet of paper that said we had done our jury service. Apparently this insulates you if you are called anytime in the subsequent year. 

So, in summary, I've spent 3 or 4 days of my life doing nothing, accomplishing nothing as a juror, and generally becoming annoyed because the system is contemptuous of my time. 

Let's consider this point, because the judicial system thinks it is doing wonderfully with their somewhat reformed, only waste a day system. When I casually remarked about how my time had been wasted to the lady who was handing me the green piece of paper, she explained that it might have seemed that way, but -- and she thought the following piece of information should buoy my spirits and make me proud -- two cases had settled that day just before they were due to begin. 

The jargon for this is "settling on the courthouse steps." The logic seems to be that lawyers who are trying to be tough negotiators will play hard to get until it is time to put up or shut up in front of a judge. That last morning is a time for lawyers to confront their clients with the chances of losing and to bounce competing offers back and forth. 

Now notice that there is no reason that such negotiations couldn't just as well occur the day before trial or even the day before that. But in my case it didn't happen that way. 

One other thought passed through my head while I was waiting in the jurors' waiting room: Every other person that the jurors would run into was someone who was getting paid for being there. There was a judge who came in about mid-morning to thank us for our service and whatnot, there were people who were there to answer questions, and there were numerous clerks who would keep track of the small number of people who would actually be walked to a courtroom. 

Their time wasn't being wasted, so why should they care about my time, or my gasoline, or the disturbance to my normal rhythm (I'm not a morning person). 

I offer a counter proposal, which I call the jurors' bill of rights

First, I should never be called to the courthouse if I am not being assigned to a courtroom to be a possible juror. No more of this game of keeping me waiting because some lawyer wasn't prepared to negotiate the day before or wanted to show that he couldn't be rolled in the negotiation process. 

Here's the alternative: I only need to show up if there is a courtroom that is ready to start interviewing jurors for a trial. If the litigants have to wait half a day for jurors to show up, that's their problem. But if I get called to the courthouse and they don't have a trial for me at or before noon, then I get paid $50 and I'm done with my jury service. And that payment comes directly from the attorneys involved. 

There may be other items for a jurors' bill of rights. As I said, in all my times answering the juror summons, I've never had the honor of being sent to a courtroom. Obviously there is something about the system that is (a) efficient for the judges and lawyers, because they always have a pool of potential jurors waiting for them, but (b) extremely inefficient for that pool of jurors, because our time is treated as worthless and most of us will just wait until we are sent home. 

Here's another item for the jurors' bill of rights: How about a meal stipend for those who are waiting to be assigned to a courtroom? This is something that could be accomplished immediately, while we are negotiating the rest of the details. 

Perhaps the jurors' bill of rights could say something about judges being rude to jurors, or making threats to jurors, or even about the worst kinds of courtroom histrionics by attorneys. How would we write such guarantees? 

An innovative use of the ballot initiative system 

I've complained repeatedly about the misuse of the initiative process by deep pockets corporations -- the twin gambling initiatives being excellent examples. But if the people -- We the People -- started to think about doing ballot initiatives then we might be able to accomplish useful things. Let me suggest that the simple threat of writing a jurors' bill of rights and taking out petitions for the ballot initiative might inspire the state legislature to pass some compromise bill quickly. They would do so because the legal system would be so frightened by the existence of a jurors' bill of rights that they would call for protection against it -- and the protection would come from the state legislature passing a compromise measure in order to undercut the petition gathering process. 

At the city level, it's obvious that we need reform, including an increase in the number of City Council representatives and a proportional decrease in City Council salaries. Even if the elected council were to pass the former, I don't see them passing the latter. After all, many of them have quit the state legislature because the City Council pay is so much higher. 

Let's talk about creative use of the ballot initiative process at the local level in a couple of weeks. I think it would be possible to do real reform of the system, but it would require preparing the public in advance because we would need something like three hundred thousand signatures. The way to get them is to make this a popular rebellion against stupidity and corruption,


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])