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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Legal community rails against budget cuts

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO – Former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno watched countless protests take place outside his office in Civic Center Plaza when he was on the court.  He never imagined that one day he’d be a participant, he said.

Jon Streeter
State Bar President Jon Streeter addresses a crowd estimated at 500 people on the steps of San Francisco City Hall on April 18.
Photos by Mathew Sumner

But on April 18, Moreno and people from all corners of the legal community turned out by the hundreds on the steps of San Francisco City Hall to call for the restoration of trial court funding. In four years, state lawmakers have slashed $650 million from the judicial branch’s budget and budget talks are once again heating up in Sacramento.

With no more one-time funding shifts to rely on, the fiscal crisis has come to a head. The courts are facing the possibility of another $125 million cut in 2012-13 if voters do not approve temporary sales and income tax increases Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking to place on the November ballot.

Staff layoffs, closed courtrooms and longer waits for service are hurting access to justice particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, said the speakers, who included judges, lawyers, policymakers and court employees.

“We are so far past (cutting) the fat, people. We are into the bone,” said Kelly Dermody, president of the Bar Association of San Francisco, which helped organize the rally.

Kamala Harris
Attorney General Kamala Harris

 Attorney General Kamala Harris said adequate court funding is essential so people have a place to go when their basic rights are in jeopardy. She urged the crowd to support “reasonable measures to bring resources into the state budget.”

State Bar President Jon Streeter said the justice system is threatened “to an extent we have never seen in our professional lives” and warned of violence if people are turned away from the courthouse and take matters in to their own hands.

State Bar Executive Director Joseph L. Dunn, a former state senator, said lawmakers’ understanding of the role of the judiciary in society hit a low 10 years ago and is even lower today.

“It’s not that they’re bad people,” he said. “They need us to raise a voice in support of the judiciary.”

A volunteer group calling itself the Open Courts Coalition is spearheading the lobbying efforts. Prominent plaintiffs’ attorneys Paul R. Kiesel and Niall McCarthy chair the 17-member steering committee, which includes Streeter, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Public Counsel CEO Hernan Vera, Morrison & Foerster attorney James Brosnahan and insurance defense lawyer Edith Matthai.

In addition to sparking rallies in San Francisco and Los Angeles, the coalition has produced a video featuring Harris, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, former governors Gray Davis and George Deukmejian, and others. The steering committee has enlisted 200 legal organizations across the state to personally visit lawmakers and send letters and emails to get their message across.

The cuts are disproportionally hitting the most vulnerable people in society, legal aid lawyers said.

Domestic violence victims are having trouble getting restraining orders. A 94-year-old man was mistakenly evicted from his home because a judge’s order staying the eviction wasn’t delivered on time due to budget cuts, said Tirien Steinbach, executive director of the nonprofit East Bay Community Law Center.

While wealthy litigants can afford to hire arbitrators to resolve their disputes, those without the means must compete for scarce court time. As the crisis drags on, cases could be vulnerable to dismissal under a rule that requires a trial within five years.

Kelly Dermody
Kelly Dermody, President of the Bar Association of San Francisco

Court cuts have reached the highest levels as well. In March, the Judicial Council, the statewide policymaking body for the courts, halted work on a plan to link up computer case management systems statewide.

In April, the council voted to reconsider $1.1 billion worth of courthouse construction projects. The judicial branch will look into scaling down the projects, renovating existing courthouses, leasing space and using lower-cost construction methods to achieve savings.

Affected projects are: El Centro Family Courthouse in Imperial County; Inyo County Courthouse; Delano and Mojave courthouses in Kern County; Eastlake Juvenile Courthouse, Glendale, Santa Clarita and Southeast Los Angeles courthouses in Los Angeles County; Ukiah Courthouse in Mendocino County, South Monterey County Courthouse in Monterey County; Nevada City Courthouse in Nevada County; Hemet Courthouse in Riverside County; and Santa Barbara Criminal Courthouse in Santa Barbara County.

Compounding the court funding crisis, money for legal aid services for the poor has bottomed out in recent years from $22 million to less than $7 million. Much of the money comes from interest charged to attorney trust accounts and interest rates are at historic lows with no sign of changing.

The funding crisis has brought together lawyers who are usually adversaries in the courtroom.

“It is clear that everyone benefits from our courts being open and providing a full range of services,” 3rd District Court of Appeal Justice Ronald Robie recently told a group of Northern California lawyers who gathered in Grass Valley. “There is no place today for old stereotypes.”