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Budget ax means closed courtrooms, furloughs

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

California courtrooms will close one day a month if the legislature approves a recommendation by its Budget Conference Committee, charged with wielding the budget ax to close a $24 billion deficit.

The committee last month agreed on a series of recommendations that will slice $393 million from the judicial system’s budget by raising some fees and delaying some construction and technology projects. The proposal requires legislative approval and the governor’s signature to take effect.

“We never thought we’d ever utter the words, ‘let’s close the courts,’” said Ron Overholt, chief deputy director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“This is such an unprecedented reduction,” he added. “It’s very painful. We’re about access to justice and building programs for the public and this is not that. This is a feeling of dismantling whatever we’ve built up.”

Although most of the budget-balancing cutbacks are aimed at education, health care and prisons, the judicial system is being hit hard. In addition to reductions in its funding, it faces millions in unfunded costs, such as court-appointed counsel for indigent defense, rent increases, court employee salaries and increases in benefits and retirement.

Closing the courts one day per month is expected to save $102 million. A $10 “security fee,” imposed on criminal fines (mostly traffic) will generate $40 million. A $5 court reporter fee will produce $7 million and a $10 “miscellaneous post-judgment fee” is expected to produce $11 million over two years. The latter category originally was meant to fund AB590, a bill to guarantee legal help for the indigent in critical human needs civil cases, but its author, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, agreed to amend the bill to divert the money for court operations for two years.

Judges also are being asked to pitch in with a 4.6 percent salary cut. Because they are constitutional officers whose salaries are protected, each judge must individually elect to take a cutback. Overholt said voluntary participation by 75 percent of the state’s 2,000 judges would save $9 million. Los Angeles Superior Court judges have accepted a 5 percent reduction and Santa Clara County judges agreed last month to a 4.6 percent cut.

Up to $25 million in funds earmarked for court construction or rehabilitation also will be diverted to court operations, under the conference committee’s plans. $71 million will come from court reserves and $32 million will come from a one-time only cut in the statutory appropriation limit. In addition, a case management system long in the works will be delayed even further.

Although many courts already have started efforts to reduce their budgets, labor issues pose a serious hurdle in some counties. Assuming lawmakers authorize court closures, it is up to individual counties to determine how to implement that authorization. The California Sheriff’s Association, whose members work as bailiffs, opposes the closures and has said it will take a close look at labor contracts. Other unions, including the Service Employees International Union, represent other court workers.

In some counties, such as Sacramento, court employees agreed to a two-year delay on a 6 percent pay increase that was due July 1. Labor groups in Santa Cruz County agreed to employee furloughs and an additional 12 unpaid “holidays” for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The closure, Overholt said, is designed to both provide uniformity of operations across the state and to give individual counties a tool to achieve required savings. “It’s our belief that closure and potential furloughs are preferable to massive layoffs and other types of things,” he said.

The last time the courts faced a fiscal crisis, in the early 2000s, the lack of uniformity meant lawyers and court users did not know hours of operation or whether a court was open. “If they’re all doing something different, it’s very difficult for lawyers to practice,” Overholt said.

The closures begin July 15 in Los Angeles, where detailed instructions, consistent with guidelines issued by the Judicial Council several years ago, appear on the Superior Court’s Web site. With nearly 600 courtrooms in 50 locations, the county has the largest trial court system in the country. It faces an estimated $90 million shortfall in the coming year.

The closures will occur every third Wednesday of the month, but limited services will be available. Filing dates are not extended, but the court encourages online transactions for several types of court business, including traffic ticket issues, filing small claims matters and obtaining copies of some documents. Emergency services, such as domestic violence or elder abuse restraining orders, will be available, defendants in custody will be arraigned and detention hearings in juvenile delinquency and juvenile dependency will be held.

Other counties are gearing up to meet anticipated shortfalls. More than 70 employees of Alameda County courts were to be laid off by the end of June. Orange County courtrooms will be shuttered the third Wednesday of every month beginning Aug. 19. In San Francisco, the superior court has had a voluntary worker furlough and hiring freeze in place since May and a potential mandatory furlough one day a month is under consideration. Many counties have had hiring freezes in place for months.

All just to get through the next year. “I don’t think it’s going to get better,” Overholt warned.

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