The Year Ahead
California Lawyer

The Year Ahead

December 2013

This year was the year of Proposition 8's demise, increased legal rights for undocumented individuals, and some stabilization of California's budget woes. What will 2014 bring? Yogi Berra supposedly said that "making predictions is tough, especially about the future." Notwithstanding Yogi's admonition, I give you the four major stories that will in part define California law in the coming year.

Pension Plans
Now that San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and four other California mayors have announced their support for a statewide initiative on a constitutional amendment to reduce public workers' pensions, the stage is set for a battle royal. The proposed amendment would protect the retirement benefits that public workers have earned to date, while clarifying that "vested contractual rights" would not legally apply to employees' future benefit accruals. It would also prohibit state and local government agencies from interfering with the voters' rights to prospectively modify public employee retirement plans.

Proponents of this initiative will argue that once it is enacted, politicians and labor alike will have no choice but to engage in a realistic conversation about the cost of benefits to both employees and employers. This process would help cities avoid bankruptcy, while encouraging collective bargaining solutions. Opponents, on the other hand, view this as yet another attack on collective bargaining rights, and argue that it is both unlawful and unjust.

I will not venture to predict whether the initiative will qualify for the ballot box, and if it does, whether it will prevail. But I will say this: Even if this measure fails to pass in 2014, that will hardly be the end of the story.

The Judicial Budget
Next year is the first since the budgetary implosion of the Great Recession that sufficient funds will be available to repair at least some of the damage done to our judicial system in past years by deep budget cuts. Until this point, Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown, as well as legislative leaders, could legitimately claim that the massive financial shortfalls required everyone, including the judiciary, to incur significant cutbacks. But now, in part because of Brown's success in increasing tax revenues, California's budgetary situation has improved significantly. As a consequence, any decision in 2014 to maintain those cuts will be much more difficult to defend. On the other hand, if by 2015 they are still in place, they will likely be viewed as the new baseline, making the negative effects even more difficult to reverse.

Prisons and Sentencing Reform
The U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision to deny Governor Brown relief from an order by a federal panel to reduce prison overcrowding will have broad ramifications in the coming year. In one form or another, California must continue its efforts to reduce prison overcrowding by moving, in part, to nonincarceration alternatives such as drug diversion and treatment programs. At the same time on the federal side, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's Smart on Crime initiative is calling for meaningful sentencing reform to end mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses. The initiative also encourages federal prosecutors to consider "alternatives to incarceration, such as drug courts, specialty courts, or other diversion programs" for nonviolent offenses.

One model Holder endorsed recently is the Conviction and Sentence Alter- natives (CASA) program, which requires defendants at liberty to remain under strict supervision for one or two years and, when appropriate, participate in an intensive treatment program to address both alcohol and substance abuse issues.

Such programs promise to make 2014 a watershed year for reducing our federal and state prison populations.

Challenges in Los Angeles
While L.A. County has managed to use astute budgeting to ameliorate the crushing financial woes that other California governmental entities face, the county is not without serious problems. Two of the most troubling are likely to come to a head in 2014.

With 10 million residents, the largest county in the nation also maintains the nation's largest jail system, managed by Sheriff Lee Baca. In 2012 a commission appointed to investigate it issued a scathing report outlining "a persistent pattern of unnecessary and excessive force" against inmates and blaming Baca for a "failure of leadership." A separate investigation found that sheriff's deputies had discriminated against African-Americans and Latinos. Baca has also been under fire for giving special gun permits to political supporters. Though the sheriff has acknowledged responsibility for some of the shortcomings, critics maintain that he is implementing the reforms only halfheartedly or without adequate financial support. Next year Baca will be up for reelection facing questions surrounding his suitability to continue in the job.

Also in the hot seat is the county's Department of Children and Family Services, which has been accused of both incompetence and recklessness after a confidential investigation into the deaths of 15 children under its care was leaked to the press. For years DCFS has denied allegations that its bureaucracy is inefficient and its workforce overwhelmed. In the wake of these recent revelations, the Board of Supervisors has approved a commission to recommend reforms. Next year will go a long way to determining whether the department can improve with these reforms - or if it is too far gone and must be, in effect, gutted and rebuilt from scratch.

Of course, other important stories in 2014 may well overshadow the ones I've mentioned here.

But as Mark Twain once observed, "prophecy" is "two bull's eyes out of a possible million." So, if two or three of mine come true, I'll be way ahead of the curve.

Dan Grunfeld, a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius in Los Angeles, heads its West Coast litigation practice.

Reader Comments

Steven Sweat - January 12, 2014
I am hopeful that court budget in Los Angeles will continue to be slowly restored. Going back to the days of waiting 4 and 5 years for a trial date on a civil case is appalling.

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