Thursday, May 07, 2015

Davis v. Sentinel Weekly News (Cal. Ct. App. - May 7, 2015)

Justice Miller writes a steady, coherent, intelligible opinion about whether the Press-Enterprise is a newspaper of "general circulation" in the City of Corona.  The Press-Enterprise certainly qualifies as a newspaper of general circulation in Riverside County, and has been since 1878.  But did that survive with respect to Corona when that city incorporated (out of Riverside County) in 1896?

This matters because lots of notices -- e.g., foreclosure notices -- are required to be published in a newspaper of general circulation.  Which is also why the Sentinel, a competing paper in Corona, goes to great lengths to oppose Riverside's application.  Because there's big money at stake.  All the cash that goes along with getting those statutorily required foreclosure notices published in the local paper.

Go ahead and read the entire opinion if you want to see who wins.

But also realize that the whole statutory scheme is absurd.  Utterly nonsensical in the modern era.

Nobody reads this stuff.  Nobody.  Whether it's a foreclosure notice or a summons via publication in a local newspaper, we don't even pretend that this is "real" notice to anyone.  We just do it because it's required.  It's a meaningless formality, and everyone knows it.  It's not like people actually read those dense notices and say "What?!  I've been sued (or my house is being foreclosed)?!  I never knew that.  Thank goodness I've got nothing better to do in life than read the boilerplate notices in (typically) an unseen section of (often) a virtually unread newspaper!"  Doesn't happen.

So why does this practice survive?  Two reasons, I think.

First, money.  Newspapers make a mint off of these (expensive) advertisements.  It's an especially critical revenue source in the contemporary lean times for newspapers.  Newspapers have lobbyists.  Politicians need both cash and good press.  The statutory publication requirement is thus good for everyone.  Everyone except, of course, the people who need to pay the resulting costs; e.g., the public.

Second, frustration.  We typically require publication as a last-ditch effort when other methods of service have failed.  Can't find the defendant.  Can't hand-serve 'em.  Things like that.  Due Process probably requires us to at least try to notify them of the lawsuit.  So, as a last ditch effort, we throw up our hands and require the one thing that we have left:  publication.  We know it doesn't actually work.  But we're out of other options.  So this way we can at least say we've tried.  Hence satisfying the Due Process Clause.

The first excuse is obviously not an actual excuse.  Never was.  The second may have been a valid reason thirty years ago.  But no longer.

We can publish these things on the web.  Have a central location -- maybe as part of the superior court's web site -- where all these notices can be made.  It'd be (super) cheap.  It'd be easy.  It'd assuredly be at least as successful as publication in an unread local newspaper, and probably more so.

As a bonus, we'd also avoid silly disputes like the one at issue in today's opinion.  Which wouldn't matter once there was a centralized, residual place where you could go to see whether you've been sued.  Maybe it'd even be (gasp!) searchable.  Unlike those dense, expensive notices in newspapers.

A rational, fairer, more efficient world would have adopted such a regime by now.  It's not like the internet is a new thing, or suddenly became ubiquitous last month.  Whatever the flaws of publication through the internet, they're insubstantial compared to the flaws of publication in a local newspaper of general circulation.

That we don't have such a dominant system -- e.g., that we have opinions like the one today -- speaks volumes about the deficiencies of our overarching political and legal system.