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By Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO — California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye remembers the moment she learned that the Kings County Superior Court had resorted to holding a garage sale to raise money.

“That was a day of extreme humiliation and embarrassment to me,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

During her three years as chief justice, recession-driven cutbacks in California’s huge court system have produced long lines and short tempers at courthouses throughout the state. Civil cases are facing growing delays in getting to trial, and court closures have forced residents in some counties to drive several hours for an appearance.

The effects vary from county to county, with rural regions hit the hardest but no court left unscathed. Governor Jerry Brown is expected Tuesday to announce his revised budget plan, which will determine whether more courthouses will have to close next year. Legislators from both parties have called on Brown to raise funding.

Unlike in federal court, it is impossible to file all cases electronically in most state courts, and fights regularly erupt in snaking lines at clerks’ offices. Telephone systems are antiquated, and there are not enough people to answer the calls. Court reporters who provide transcripts of hearings have been eliminated for civil cases in many counties, making it more difficult for the losing party to appeal.

Cantil-Sakauye said annual case filings have dropped by about 2.5 million statewide in the last few years, possibly because delays, higher costs and longer drives have discouraged users.

“I don’t believe we are becoming a more law-abiding, rule-following society,” she said. “But we have closed more than 50 courthouses and eliminated 3,900 full-time positions. So are people finally getting the message they shouldn’t bother to come to court?”

Retired Judge Stephen Jahr, who heads the court’s statewide administrative office, said delays in civil trials are approaching levels not seen since the 1970s, before laws were passed to speed up trial dates.

Without significantly more money in the coming year, civil cases “being filed today will not get to trial until five years, which is the mandatory dismissal date,” Jahr said. “We will be back to where we started 25 years ago.”

The picture is vastly different from the late 1990s, when the courts unified under one branch and funding shifted from counties to the state. New courthouses were planned. A computer system that was supposed to link all the courts was ordered.

Then the economy took a nose dive. Cantil-Sakauye had been chief for only one month in 2011 when the state issued an audit blasting the judicial branch for spending $500 million on a computer system plagued with problems. The project has since been abandoned, but the scandal damaged the courts’ credibility with state legislators.

A dissident group of judges charged that the court’s San Francisco administrative office, which receives 3.8 percent of the $3.14-billion court budget, was wasteful. Legislators have approved a pending audit of the office, and Cantil-Sakauye said she has trouble dispelling suspicions that it was hiding “buckets of money.”

She said she has a good relationship with Brown. “I enjoy his company, and he is always available,” she said. “He listens but never commits. … He is a person who thinks big ideas, he talks about the court reinventing itself by restructuring or becoming more efficient.”

She said she agrees the courts should not be “static,” but noted that some efficiencies require upfront investments to save money down the road.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown’s Department of Finance, said the state has tried to ensure courts were maintained “at a relatively stable level in recent years.” Other state services fared worse, he said, and also are clamoring for more money.

Brown’s budget proposal concedes the coming year will be “challenging” for the courts. He has proposed a $105-million increase, which judicial leaders say is not enough to prevent more court closures and cutbacks. The local reserves courts tapped into in the past to cushion state cuts are now gone.

Cantil-Sakauye said the courts need an additional $266 million “just to tread water” in the coming fiscal year, $612 million to be fully functional and $1.2 billion over three years to make up for past cuts.

Many court delays stem from staff shortages. Legal documents pile up, delaying judgments. Clerks in Contra Costa County said they have received complaints from people who divorced and wanted to remarry but couldn’t because clerks had not yet processed the paperwork for judges’ signatures.

Presiding Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barry P. Goode said he discovered 20 feet of unfiled civil law documents in a clerk’s office. Judges complained that they did not have the files before them when cases were called.

“It makes your heart sick to see what we have done to the courts,” said Goode, surrounded by unfiled legal documents in the Martinez court.

The number of public windows and their hours have been slashed at courthouses throughout the state.

The lines are so long at the Martinez courthouse that Cookie Gambucci, who files legal documents for lawyers, now brings stickers and toys for the children of parents waiting in line. “I am waiting two to three hours, and I can’t stand babies crying and parents wanting to beat their children,” Gambucci said.

Los Angeles County is down 80 courtrooms and has eliminated court reporters in civil cases. Getting a trial for a traffic case can take a year. Trials on civil matters may require a two-year wait.

“The result of all this is delays and backlogs,” Presiding Judge David S. Wesley said. “I have long lines all over the county.”

In San Bernardino County, the Superior Court has stopped summoning jurors from Needles, making the guarantee of a jury of one’s peers elusive. Because of court closures in the high desert, a trip to court from Needles can take some residents 3{ hours.

“We are really on the borderline of a constitutional crisis,” said Marsha Slough, the county’s presiding judge. “We have victims who want to give up because they don’t want to testify in criminal trials because of the driving distances and costs.”

The county has closed four courthouses, scaled back hours in a fifth and remains short 600 employees, Slough said. Poor high-desert communities were the most affected.

A change in a child custody order can take at least four months because of lack of staff, Slough said. “This is a lifetime for a child,” she said.

At the Victorville branch, people without lawyers who need help take a number and wait. A sign warns those waiting that they may not be seen that day. Mario Campos, 43, said he had been in line an hour and a half to get help with a divorce. About 10 people were still ahead of him.

“It is a long time, but it is a lot faster than usual,” said Campos, a pizza delivery driver.

Kerrie Justice, a family law attorney, said one of her clients has been waiting nearly three years to resolve a child custody dispute because of court closures and judge reassignments. “This case should have taken a year,” Justice said.

Victorville criminal defense lawyer Brendon Atwood said there aren’t enough judges to handle the caseload. “You may get 30 seconds of the court’s time instead of six or seven minutes,” he said.

Virginia Turner, the mother of a teenage girl who was attacked at her school, said her daughter went to court in Richmond in October to obtain a domestic violence restraining order. The girl’s lawyer discovered the court had stopped providing reporters to transcribe such hearings.

With the judge’s permission, the lawyer turned on her cell phone to record the alleged attacker’s testimony. But it didn’t pick up his words, and his statements could not be used against him in a later proceeding, Turner said.

Photo: Steve Rhodes via Flickr
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Former President Donald Trump, left, and former White House counsel Pat Cipollone

On Wednesday evening the House Select Committee investigating the Trump coup plot issued a subpoena to former White House counsel Pat Cipollone, following blockbuster testimony from former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson, who said the lawyer had warned of potential criminal activity by former President Donald Trump and his aides.

The committee summons to Cipollone followed long negotiations over his possible appearance and increasing pressure on him to come forward as Hutchinson did. Committee members expect the former counsel’s testimony to advance their investigation, owing to his knowledge of the former president's actions before, during and after the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

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Mark Meadows

Donald Trump’s White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows wanted a presidential pardon. He had facilitated key stages of Trump’s attempted 2020 coup, linking the insurrectionists to the highest reaches of the White House and Congress.

But ultimately, Meadows failed to deliver what Trump most wanted, which was convincing others in government to overturn the 2020 election. And then his subordinates, White House security staff, thwarted Trump’s plan to march with a mob into the Capitol.

Meadows’ role has become clearer with each January 6 hearing. Earlier hearings traced how his attempted Justice Department takeover failed. The fake Electoral College slates that Meadows had pushed were not accepted by Congress. The calls by Trump to state officials that he had orchestrated to “find votes” did not work. Nor could Meadows convince Vice-President Mike Pence to ignore the official Electoral College results and count pro-Trump forgeries.

And as January 6 approached and the insurrection began, new and riveting details emerged about Meadow’s pivotal role at the eye of this storm, according to testimony on Tuesday by his top White House aide, Cassidy Hutchinson.

Meadows had been repeatedly told that threats of violence were real. Yet he repeatedly ignored calls from the Secret Service, Capitol police, White House lawyers and military chiefs to protect the Capitol, Hutchinson told the committee under oath. And then Meadows, or, at least White House staff under him, failed Trump a final time – although in a surprising way.

After Trump told supporters at a January 6 rally that he would walk with them to the Capitol, Meadows’ staff, which oversaw Trump’s transportation, refused to drive him there. Trump was furious. He grabbed at the limousine’s steering wheel. He assaulted the Secret Service deputy, who was in the car, and had told Trump that it was not safe to go, Hutchinson testified.

“He said, ‘I’m the f-ing president. Take me up to the Capitol now,’” she said, describing what was told to her a short while later by those in the limousine. And Trump blamed Meadows.

“Later in the day, it had been relayed to me via Mark that the president wasn’t happy that Bobby [Engel, the driver] didn’t pull it off for him, and that Mark didn’t work hard enough to get the movement on the books [Trump’s schedule].”

Hutchinson’s testimony was the latest revelations to emerge from hearings that have traced in great detail how Trump and his allies plotted and intended to overturn the election. Her eye-witness account provided an unprecedented view of a raging president.

Hutchinson’s testimony was compared to John Dean, the star witness of the Watergate hearings a half-century ago that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon for his aides’ efforts to spy on and smear Democrats during the 1972 presidential campaign.

“She IS the John Dean of the hearings,” tweeted the Brooking Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written legal analyses on prosecuting Trump. “Trump fighting with his security, throwing plates at the wall, but above all the WH knowing that violence was coming on 1/6. The plates & the fighting are not crimes, but they will color the prosecution devastatingly.”

Meadows’ presence has hovered over the coup plot and insurrection. Though he has refused to testify before the January 6 committee, his pivotal role increasingly has come into view.

Under oath, Hutchinson described links between Meadows and communication channels to the armed mob that had assembled. She was backstage at the Trump’s midday January 6 rally and described Trump’s anger that the crowd was not big enough. The Secret Service told him that many people were armed and did not want to go through security and give up their weapons.

Trump, she recounted, said “something to the effect of, ‘I don’t f-ing care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me. Take the mags [metal detectors] away. Let the people in. They can march to the Capitol from here.

As the day progressed and the Capitol was breached, Hutchison described the scene at the White House from her cubicle outside the Oval Office. She repeatedly went into Meadows’ office, where he had isolated himself. When Secret Service officials urged her to get Meadows to urge Trump to tell his supporters to stand down and leave, he sat listless.

“He [Meadows] needs to snap out of it,” she said that she told others who pressed her to get Meadows to act. Later, she heard Meadows repeatedly tell other White House officials that Trump “doesn’t think they [insurrectionists] are doing anything wrong.” Trump said Pence deserved to be hung as a traitor, she said.

Immediately after January 6, Hutchinson said that Trump’s cabinet discussed invoking the 25th Amendment to remove a sitting president but did not do so. She also said that Meadows sought a pardon for his January 6-related actions.

Today, Meadows is championing many of the same election falsehoods that he pushed for Trump as a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a right-wing think tank whose 2021 annual report boasts of “changing the way conservatives fight.”

His colleagues include Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who pushed for Trump to use every means to overturn the election and leads CPI’s “election integrity network,” and other Republicans who have been attacking elections as illegitimate where their candidates lose.

Hutchinson’s testimony may impede Meadows’ future political role, as it exposes him to possible criminal prosecution. But the election-denying movement that he nurtured has not gone away. CPI said it is targeting elections in national battleground states for 2022’s midterms, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Trump did not give Meadows a pardon. But in July 2021, Trump’s “Save America” PAC gave CPI $1 million.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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