Justice for all? Or just those at the top of county courts
By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist
The image is universal and has been the central focus of countless movies and TV shows—a black-robed judge seated behind a bench, empowered to oversee the application of the laws of our state. It’s also a reality seen every day inside the five regional justice centers in Orange County. But there is much more to the administration of justice than what we usually see on a television or theater screen.
For every Superior Court judge in Orange County, there are nine dedicated professionals who work behind the scenes to ensure access for the thousands of parties who file cases in the court each year. Court clerks prepare the docket of cases to be called, provide information for judges and keep track of witnesses, attorneys and litigants. Court reporters keep an accurate and legally binding record of court proceedings, and legal processing specialists help county residents navigate the legal system in countless situations.
These are demanding jobs requiring specialized training and certifications in order to ensure fairness and timeliness for parties before the court with cases that can impact their freedom, financial future and even their lives.
It is therefore with significant frustration that I share with you how a court system charged with dispensing justice to all can, by choice, cavalierly treat its own essential workers so unfairly. Despite the outward appearance projected by the trappings of the court, inside there are two very different realities for court professionals. Here’s what‘s happening in every courtroom in Orange County.
- Take home pay for court workers has steadily decreased since 2011 while court executives and managers have received generous pay increases;
- Court reporters have been forced to work part-time, reducing available courtroom time for the public;
- Court executives pay very little in retirement costs while court workers pay 13 percent of every paycheck toward retirement;
- Executives schedule plenty of time off for themselves with no loss of pay but cut hours for court workers;
- Court workers at the Central Justice Center must often wade through a Civic Center homeless population on the way to work while executives have a private garage and elevator. Keep in mind these positions don’t pay the six-figure salaries court executives receive, far from it. I’m not suggesting they should, but essential court workers should be treated with the respect their dedication and professionalism deserve.
No one wants to work in an environment where dedication isn’t valued and where double standards are the rule. These abuses result in worker recruitment and retention problems that significantly impact Orange County residents when lack of personnel delays proceedings. It is not acceptable for justice to be compromised because essential workers are devalued.
The predictable response of court executives is to plead poverty and blame the state Legislature for the underfunding of California courts and their failure to treat court workers fairly. But pointing fingers at Sacramento is just an ongoing excuse for misplaced priorities. The truth is, the court has followed a deliberate strategy to reward its executives on the backs of its workers.
Orange County residents deserve a system of justice that is equitable to both the public who utilize the court system to seek justice and to those essential workers who help keep that system running smoothly. That means increasing access to justice for the residents of Orange County — not decreasing it by cutting hours of essential staff. It means providing fair compensation for court workers, instead of sitting idly by as their paychecks decrease year after year. It means honoring the phrase “justice for all” instead of “justice for all of us at the top.”
Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
Publication Date: October 6, 2017