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Private Justice Can Be Yours If You're Rich

The following article was written by Michael Hiltzik for the Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2006.

Note from Author: A terrifying experience in a haunted house on an island in Montreal segued with cruel treatment in the chambers of a private judge, and "The House on Black Lake" was born. The use of private judges is only legal in a few states, but what is most disturbing are the states  that allow laymen attorney to don the robe of a judge and precide over trials.

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       You don't need me to tell you how grand it is to be rich in California. You don't have to care about the condition of public education because your kids go to private school. You don't have to worry about higher park fees, because you can lock up access to your private beach and hire thugs to run off any riffraff who get near the water. You don't have to do your own gardening, because there are plenty of illegals around to trim your perennials.

        And you don't have to subject yourself to litigating your private disputes in open court, because you can buy yourself a judge to run interference for you - under cover of the state Constitution, no less.

        If your private judge violates state judicial rules and bends the public court system to your personal ends, what's the downside? Your judge is outside the reach of the state's disciplinary system for misbehaving jurists. If your case happens to involve matters of manifest public importance and interest, too bad about the public. After all, the system belongs to you.

        Many states allow retired judges to fulfill limited judicial roles - as referees in evidentiary disputes or as fill-in udges to relieve docket gridlock, for example. But California, apparently uniquely, is much more liberal. Its Constitution allows attorneys and ex-judges to conduct actual trials in the guise of temporary jurists. Once selected by litigants, they're sworn in as Superior Court judges and endowed with almost all the powers and authority of any active judge.

        They then proceed to abuse their power. Documents and hearings in the cases before them are supposed to be public, but often the papers don't end up in public files, trial schedules are kept secret, and even those that leak out are held in private offices behind layers of security. The sealing of a court document is an important decision that involves a core principle of the public judicial system; these judges do it all the time, secretly, simply by sticking sensitive papers in their briefcases and dodging requests for access.

        So justice ends up belonging, like a private preserve, to the rich and powerful - indeed, anyone who can pay a judge $400-$500 an hour. It's unsurprising that the public knows little about this system because the judicial establishment isn't even sure how widespread it is; court clerks don't keep a tally of how many cases are tried by privately temporary judges.

        Instead of reining in this system, the Legislature is preparing to expand it. A bill to give temporary judges the authority to seal many documents in divorce  cases is currently moving through Sacramento, despite  evidence that temporary judges have overstepped their nonexistent authority in the past.

        The corrosive influence of this two-tier system is hardly a secret. In 1992 when a plan to expand the authority of private judges came into consideration by the court administration came up for consideration Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert H. O'Brien complained in a letter that that a double tier system - one for the wealthy, one for the poor (or even not so wealthy)" was a "real evil." He dismissed the complaint that public dockets were jammed - as a "feeble rationalization" for the creation of a money making scheme.

        One corrupting feature of the process is the immunity of privately from from disciplinary action. The state commission on judicial performance, which has the power to remove ordinary judges from the bench, has no jurisdiction overy temporary judges, even when they misbehave. Even a county's  judge is powerless to force temporary judges to comply with local procedural rules.

        Why should we care about this? Not only because the very idea of a two-tier justice should enrage every citizen but also because as conditions get better for the privileged they become worse for everyone else. As long as the wealthy and powerful can buy their own civil justice the system goes to hell, and the road to its collapse will become even steeper.

The complete article may be viewed at:

http://articles.latimes.com/2006/mar/16/business/fi-golden16

 

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