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State budget woes hit courts hard

Staff Writer

California's courts, already struggling with whittled-down budgets, face a worst-case scenario of a $396.4 million shortfall next year, a devastating possibility one court official said "would severely cripple the entire judicial system."

The staggering budget reduction likely would lead to the elimination of many programs instituted in recent years, closing courtrooms or reducing hours of operation, reducing or freezing salaries, early retirement, and possible layoffs.

"We're talking about things that are simply horrendous," said Los Angeles Appellate Justice Norman Epstein at a recent Judicial Council meeting.

Resigned to the financial realities, the council offered little discussion before adopting a series of recommendations authorizing the staff to adjust budgets to meet the crisis and to appeal to the governor for more funds to pay for mandated costs.

Like most other public entities affected by California's projected $34 billion deficit, the judicial branch, whose $2.5 billion budget accounts for slightly more than 2 percent of the total state budget, slashed spending for the current fiscal year by $154 million, a 5 percent reduction.

When Gov. Davis proposed mid-year cuts in December, the courts took another $44.5 million hit for the remainder of the fiscal year ending June 30. Of that, trial courts will absorb a loss of $36 million and the judiciary (Supreme Court, courts of appeal and the Administrative Office of the Courts) will lose another $8.5 million.

Each trial court submitted to the AOC proposals for achieving the required cutbacks, which include early retirement, involuntary work furloughs, slicing full-time jobs to three-quarters or half-time, merging traffic and collections divisions, limiting night courts, postponing equipment purchases or buying lower quality equipment and no longer providing district attorneys and public defenders with daily copies of detailed court calendars.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George
Chief Justice George

"Some things that are nearest and dearest to my heart will be affected," said Chief Justice Ronald M. George. He added that he hopes layoffs can be avoided, but "no areas will be immune" from the budget ax.

Some counties already have scaled way back.

Los Angeles County, for example, which has the largest trial court system in the United States, has closed 29 courtrooms, laid off part-time and student employees and 70-80 full-time workers, and has a $57 million deficit.

At the other end of the spectrum, Yolo County's 110 court employees, with the exception of one criminal law department, took off eight days without pay at the end of last year, and the court's offices close early every day and shut down at lunch.

During the Christmas holidays, the Placer County courthouse was shuttered for two weeks. Courtrooms in Alameda County close at 4:30 p.m. daily, and the clerk's office closes at 4. Riverside County's public offices close early and Orange County has ceased its night court operations, save one night a month.

Fresno County instituted voluntary furloughs and froze its 22 vacancies, its Family Law Information Center closed six months early because the grant funding ended, and it has huge backlogs in its criminal and traffic departments.

"This is a total crisis," said Tamara Beard, executive officer of the Fresno courts. "I've never seen anything like it in my 22 years in the courts."

In so-called "spring letters"sent to the governor each year to try to win more funds, the Judicial Council will seek $61 million for the trial courts this fiscal year to pay for such mandated costs as retirement, workers' compensation, postage, increased charges for county-provided services and converting temporary help to permanent positions, as required by recent legislation.

These represent costs that were submitted to the governor previously, but were rejected.

If the additional funding is not provided, if cost-cutting or revenue-producing legislation fails, and if the state's fiscal woes don't improve, or worsen, the courts will face a whopping $396.4 million shortfall next year, said Judicial Council deputy director Ron Overholt.

Compounding the shortfall is the fact that, like many other state agencies, a high percentage of the courts' funding is non-discretionary. In the trial courts, for instance, 61 percent of the budget is non-discretionary and includes judicial salaries, jury services, and constitutionally required criminal expenditures.

In the appellate courts, an even larger portion - 74 percent - of the budget is earmarked for non-discretionary expenses, such as judges' salaries, rent, appointed criminal defense counsel and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center.

Some of the governor's proposals, whether cost-saving or revenue-generating, have met with resistance from the Legislative Analyst's Office and others face powerful political opposition.

For instance, Davis wants to increase several court filing fees which could generate $66.2 million in revenues. A new court security fee would add $20 per civil filing and $20 in criminal cases where the defendant is convicted, and trial motion fees would cost another $10. An increase in the appellate filing fee, from $265 to $630, would generate $2.1 million by the governor's estimate.

However, the legislative analyst has criticized increased fees as a possible impediment to the courts for low-income people.

The legislative analyst supports a proposal to allow the courts to take competitive bids for security services, which Davis believes could save $22 million. Sheriff's deputies provide security in most courthouses, and the analyst believes their growing salaries are a big factor in increased security costs which could be reduced if private security agencies were hired. Court officials estimate they have seen a 50 percent increase in security costs in recent years.

But the proposal has met resistance from the politically powerful sheriff's union.

Davis also believes he can save $31 million by switching in some cases from court stenographers to electronic reporting, a proposal which has been blocked in the past. Another $5.5 million savings could be realized if the courts own the transcripts. Besides opposition from the court reporters, another group with political clout, the legislative analyst said more information is needed about staff requirements and management of transcripts from the recordings.

The switch would require legislation. In addition, start-up costs would be very expensive and may be an outlay the courts cannot afford right now.

George seems willing to take on the sheriffs and court reporters, noting in a recent statement that the courts can achieve some savings "if we have the strength of will to reexamine how we conduct our business in many areas (such as security, traffic adjudication, maintaining the records of court proceedings, etc.)."

The cutbacks are particularly painful to a court system whose executives, from George on down, have emphasized improved access to the public, particularly those who might be underserved, and modernization of operations.

Many of the advances, such as mediation services, self-help centers, assistance for pro pers, services for families and children, and specialized courts are now at risk.

Nonetheless, the Judicial Council agreed that its priority in the coming year will be to keep courts open to provide maximum access to the public.

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