SYNDICATED COLUMN: How I Found Out That the Courts Are Off-Limits to the 99%

Image result for court fees expensive            I’m suing the Los Angeles Times. I’m the plaintiff. I’m the one who was wronged. The Times should be defending themselves from my accusations that they fired and libeled me as a favor to a police chief.

But this is America.

Deep-pocketed defendants like the Times — owned by a corporation with the weird name Tronc and a market capitalization in excess of $400 million — are taking advantage of America’s collapsing court system to turn justice on its head. In worn-out Trump-era America, the corruption and confusion that used to be associated with the developing world has been normalized.

If you’re a big business like Tronc, you may be the defendant on paper but you have all the advantages in court. Your money allows you to put the plaintiff on the defense. You’re equal in the eyes of the law — theoretically. But it doesn’t feel like justice when the victim has to defend himself from the criminal. It’s like that song “Lola,” in which the Kinks sang “girls will be boys and boys will be girls”; the courts system is a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.

States like California passed anti-SLAPP laws to defend individuals with modest incomes (like me) against deep-pocketed plaintiffs (like the Times) that file frivolous lawsuits to intimidate and harass their critics. After an anti-SLAPP motion is filed, the case freezes until a judge decides whether the case is meritorious. If the judge says it’s frivolous, it’s dismissed and the poor individual defendant gets his or her attorney’s fees paid by the deep-pocked corporation plaintiff.

After I sued them for defamation and wrongful termination, the Times filed three “anti-SLAPP” motions against me. So if the judge decides I don’t have a good case, this middle-class individual plaintiff will have to pay deep-pocketed defendant Tronc’s legal fees. The Troncies want at least $300,000.

Talk about topsy-turvy! The legislature should fix this law but they won’t because there’s zero political movement in that direction. I may be the only journalist to have criticized anti-SLAPP laws in a public forum. Articles about anti-SLAPP feature nothing but praise.

There were three motions. I lost one on June 21st, against the individual Times employees and executives involved in libeling me. (I plan to appeal.) That loss prompted a parting of ways with my attorneys. What followed was a month of representing myself pro se (in California they call it in pro per).

I now have new lawyers, and we’re waiting to hear how I did arguing against ace lawyer Kelli Sager’s anti-SLAPP motions for the Times and Tronc in LA Superior Court on July 14th. It sucked. But representing myself gave me a full-immersion crash course in just how messed up the courts really are.

The big thing I learned was that poor people have zero access to justice.

Nor do the middle class.

After the June 21st debacle, a semi-retired lawyer friend advised me to file a Motion for Reconsideration, a request to the judge to take another look and perhaps realize that he made some mistakes. The law gives you 10 days to file.

My Motion for Reconsideration was one of numerous motions I would have to draft and file myself while pro se. It was incredibly expensive, wildly burdensome and so daunting I bet 99% of people without a lawyer would throw up their hands and give up.

I’m the 1%.

I’m a writer. I went to an Ivy League school; I was a history major so I’m good at research. I used to work at a bank, where I worked on legal documents so I’m familiar with legalese. So I researched what works and doesn’t work in a Motion for Reconsideration. I crafted an argument. I deployed the proper tone using the right words and phrases.

Most people, not having the necessary skills or educational attainment, wouldn’t stand a prayer of writing a legal brief like this motion. Mine may fail — but the judge might read it and take it seriously because it’s written correctly.

I called the court clerk to ask how to file my motion. She was incredibly curt and mean. I’m a New Yorker so I persisted, but I could imagine other callers being put off and forgetting the whole thing.

Schedule a date for your hearing on the court’s website, the clerk told me. Good luck! The site had an outdated interface, was loaded with arcane bureaucratic jargon and a design that’s byzantine and hard to navigate. If English is your second language, forget it.

Eventually I found the place to reserve a hearing date — where I learned about the $540 filing fee.

Payable only by credit card.

No debit cards.

No Amex.

Protracted litigation against a well-funded adversary like the Times/Tronc could easily require dozens of $540 filing fees. The poor need not apply. Most Americans don’t have that kind of money. And what about people who scrape up the dough but don’t have plastic?

$10 would be too much. $540 is frigging obscene.

I paid the fee, printed out the receipt as required, stapled it to the back of my multiple required copies of the motion and went to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse to file it. As I waited in Room 102 to have my motions stamped by a clerk, I studied the many working-class people waiting in the same line.

Here too, there is no consideration for the people. The clerk’s office is open Monday to Friday 8:30 to 4:30. Most people work during those hours. Gotta file something? You have to take time off. Parking? Expensive and far away.

I have a dream.

I dream of a court system dedicated to equal justice before the law — where anyone can file a motion, where there are no filing fees, where the courthouse is open on weekends, where you can file motions by uploading them online and there’s free parking for citizens conducting business in the people’s house.

But Tronc wouldn’t like that system.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall) is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on RedditDigg thisShare on StumbleUponEmail this to someone

6 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: How I Found Out That the Courts Are Off-Limits to the 99%

  1. «Deep-pocketed defendants like the Times — owned by a corporation with the weird name Tronc and a market capitalization in excess of $400 million — are taking advantage of America’s collapsing court system to turn justice on its head.» Ted, Ted, don’t tell me you’ve just discovered that the (in)justice system in the United States is rigged against the poor, i e, anyone who isn’t at least a millionaire with middle name multi ? (I realise I’m being unfair, but you seem so surprised.) After all, it’s good to know that government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich has not yet perished from the earth ; indeed, the US is still invading other countries in order to bring such excellent government to them as well….

    Henri

  2. “In worn-out Trump-era America, the corruption and confusion that used to be associated with the developing world has been normalized.”

    Blaming Trump for 3 laws written when the two Bushes were president is going a bit far. The ‘Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Obama/Trump-era’ would be more fair.

  3. Having represented myself in pro per a few times in California courts, it is reassuring to read about Ted’s personal experience with the courts. It is a daunting task just to prepare and file the initial complaint (lawsuit).

    At the time, all I had going for me was a high school education, some mediocre writing skills, and a paralegal course. It was enough for me to skate through on my cases, which were primarily filed to bring attention to civil rights violations by numerous California business establishments. I lost those, but feel my point was made.

    In a different-type case against the Palm Springs Police Department, I filed a federal suit claiming they were violating my rights as a gay man since their policies and practices in the 1990s was to single out & harass gay men in public (not for having sex, mind you).

    As a result of the lawsuit, city officials, including the then-police chief, FINALLY agreed to meet with me to discuss policy changes. I dismissed the case and was happy with the outcome.

    In Ted’s case against the Los Angeles Times, the paper isn’t going to settle with him or meet with him or try to resolve the case in any way, shape or form. They are out to destroy him and tell the journalist industry: “Don’t fuck with us. We are the king of all media!”

    It isn’t just the laypeople who are treated like crap by the court system. I sat in as an observer for Ted’s most recent hearing on July 14 and was shocked as shit to observe the courtroom clerk treat all the attorneys equally: Like total shit. It was really amazing. She was barking orders left and right, yelling in the courtroom, yelling in the hallway. If Andy Cohen were there he would have signed tghe clerk up for her own reality show.

    If I were a lawyer I would have told her to shut the fuck up. What gives her the right to treat parties and lawyers and the average Joe/Jane like total dirt?

    Anyhow, the justice system is not for the poor, which is very sad because oftentimes they are the ones who need it the most. There are forms that one can fill out to have filing fees waived. I’ve filed those before, but be prepared to present a very detailed financial history with proof of every penny coming in and going out before the court will approve it!

  4. > the judge might read it and take it seriously because it’s written correctly.

    He might had it been written by a lawyer. Judges are notorious for being deaf to the pleas of laypeople. At least what you’re doing is being recorded.

    I was in civil court once, where the judge and a clerk are the only court denizens in the room. I tried to make my case, and the judge responded – and I quote – “I don’t have time to listen to a litany of excuses.” That should have gotten in thrown out right there, but since there was no record, the judge’s word was law. (“I am the law” – Judge Dredd)

  5. Yes, our legal system is so broken down and unfair. And especially in California: during the Great Recession, funding was slashed for the courts system, which meant fewer clerks, and during trials(I found when I was a juror)that courts were not in session on Fridays to save money. Recently, the court clerks of Santa Clara County went on strike for higher wages which had not gone up since the Recession, meanwhile the high tech boom made the cost of living so high and anyone who doesn’t have a high tech job is struggling to pay the rent. And now that California is no longer in recession, our dear leader Jerry Brown still doesn’t want to release more money to get the courts to run better(well money doesn’t cure everything, so who knows?).
    Us Californians really need to address the anti-SLAAP suit abuses that clever lawyers and judges let happen. But where is the special interest group to get behind that??

Leave a Reply