What would it take for the state to realize that cutting court budgets to the bone is morally indefensible? Here's one scenario: A young woman applies for a temporary restraining order against her physically abusive husband. She knows that he is violent and unpredictable. She also knows that he will be furious with her once he finds out what she has done. But the court is so crippled by budget cuts that it is unable to respond to her request promptly. Hours turn into days, and before a judge can sign off on a TRO, both she and her small child are brutally murdered in their own home.
Implausible? Hardly. In fact, abused women are most vulnerable between the time they file for a restraining order and when they actually obtain one. Which is why courts are supposed to make every effort to rule on these requests the same day they are filed. But these days, that's increasingly difficult to pull off.
"This is where the effects of the budget cuts are both real and tangible," says Eric Berkowitz
, a San Francisco-based writer and attorney who, for this month's cover story, spent time at a legal aid office in Redwood City. There he met a number of battered women seeking help from Protima Pandey, an attorney who does her best to guide clients through a system that is, as Berkowitz shows, profoundly broken ("Desperate Hours
"Every time I visited the family courts and facilitators' offices, it was like walking into an alternate reality," he says. "Crowds of people, most without the slightest clue how to manage the court system, were just sitting there waiting for someone to help them. Some wait for days. It made Kafka's The Trial
look like a rational situation."
Also in this issue, Los Angeles writer Matthew Heller
tells the story of Dimitrios Biller, a former in-house lawyer for Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., who drew national attention when he accused the company of withholding incriminating information about the safety of its vehicles ("Inside Out
"). It's a complicated tale that unfolds in state and federal lawsuits, arbitration, and eventually in Biller's personal bankruptcy. It also raises an unsettling question that all in-house attorneys would do well to ponder: What, exactly, should a good company lawyer do when faced with a choice between betraying an employer's confidences and enabling illegal behavior? "It's a very murky area," Heller acknowledges. And not one that's likely to be resolved anytime soon.
Finally, I'm pleased to announce the addition of four new members to our distinguished board of editorial advisors. They are Teveia R. Barnes
of the California Department of Financial Institutions; criminal defense attorney Ben Pesta
; Russell C. Swartz
of Southern California Edison; and Ventura County District Attorney Greg D. Totten
. To all, I say welcome aboard!