L.A. lawyers sue to get more judges on the bench. COURT OVERCROWDING

In what appears to be the first action of its kind in the country, a lawyers' group here is suing a court, as well as the government agencies that fund it, to try to get more judges appointed to the bench and ease a ``crisis'' in court overcrowding. Legal authorities say the move, if successful, could lead to a host of similar lawsuits being filed across the country where clogged dockets are a problem.

Even if it fails, the lawsuit will provide some legal guidance in an area that has never been explored - and could strengthen the hand of groups here who have long been pushing for more judicial resources.

``It is a completely new area,'' says Carl Baar, a professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, and an expert on judicial administration. ``It is a major new step in trying to draw attention to the resource needs of the courts.''

``It is important whether they win or not,'' says Harry Lawson, director of judicial administration at the University of Denver College of Law.

The suit filed last week by the Los Angeles County Bar Association targets the Los Angeles Superior Court, the county board of supervisors, the governor, secretary of state, and leaders of the California Assembly and Senate. Both county and state officials are involved in the process of approving and paying for superior court judges.

In its suit, the bar association contends that the agencies have failed to provide enough judicial officers to insure ``meaningful access to the courts'' under federal civil rights laws. Major civil cases often take longer than five years, the legal limit in the state, to come to trial.

``It is at a crisis,'' says Larry Feldman, president of the 20,000-member bar association. ``I think the whole system is falling apart.''

The court is being squeezed from two sides. Last month a federal judge here began enforcing a 1979 order on overcrowding at a county jail. The order was the outcome of a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleging that the number of inmates at the facility was too high and that delays in getting criminal cases to court violated defendants' constitutional right to a speedy trial.

To speed the process, the superior court, under ACLU pressure, has tried assigning more judges to criminal cases. With the ruling last month, more court resources are expected to be devoted to criminal matters - thus further slowing the civil trial system.

``We are constantly diverting judges from civil [cases] to handle the increased criminal caseload,'' says Frank Zolin, executive officer of the Los Angeles Superior Court.

The bar suit is considered important for several reasons. It is the first time a bar association has taken such action. It is also believed to be the first time a court and the agencies that fund it have been sued for more judges.

It is not uncommon for courts themselves to order county governments to provide more resources, such as public defenders and probation officers. But it is novel for the court to be held liable for such things.

One other unusual aspect is that the suit was filed in federal court. The lawyers did this in part because they knew the issue would come to trial more quickly than in a state court.

Yet the main reason is that they believe civil litigants have a constitutional right to meaningful access to the courts, which could raise new questions.

``It might ultimately test whether the states have a federal constitutional obligation to provide a forum for the resolution of civil disputes,'' says Ernest Friesen, a professor at California Western Law School.

The bar does not specify the number of judges it would like to see added to the bench. But the state Judicial Council, the administrative agency for the court system, recently said that the 224-judge Los Angeles Superior Court needs an additional 122 judges just to keep its backlog from growing. Another 100 judges were estimated to be needed to reduce the backlog to zero by 1992.

Last year the county Board of Supervisors asked state lawmakers to approve 60 new judicial posts. They agreed to 14.

Some scholars think the bar's suit is a longshot. Because it breaks new ground, the group will have to present an unusually convincing case. Some also note federal courts have been reluctant to intrude in a largely political area - the provision of judicial resources.

Still, even if it goes nowhere, the suit draws attention to the plight of the court. And, ironically, that could prove beneficial to a defendant being sued - the superior court - in the form of more judges.

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