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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Budget cuts hit home

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Standing before a room full of reporters, native San Franciscan Katherine Feinstein lamented the state of the courts she calls her professional home. "This is the saddest and most heart-wrenching day in my professional life," the presiding judge said, as she announced the layoffs of 200 superior court employees. The cuts are devastating to employees, will cause significant damage to the economy of the Bay Area and are "tremendously harmful to the public," she said. "This is just not right. The ones who need our help the most will suffer."

California court budget cutsThe layoffs, which include 11 court commissioners and hearing officers, cut across all divisions and will hit clerks the hardest, but also will affect human resources, finance, technology support and legal staff. They will "for all practical purposes dismantle our court," Feinstein said. "The civil justice system in San Francisco is collapsing."

Although the city may sustain more severe budget reductions than other courts in California in the next fiscal year, none of the other 57 counties will escape the harsh impact of the state's budget woes.

San Joaquin County, along with San Francisco one of the hardest-hit counties, will no longer hear small claims cases and plans to close two courtrooms in Lodi and its courthouse in Tracy. Some employees of the Alameda County Superior Court, including court reporters, have been told they may receive official layoff notices in five weeks. Shasta County is cutting hours, including trimming one court's schedule from five days to one. Sacramento County is considering laying off a quarter of its court workforce.

But most county court officials haven't yet figured out how they are going to deal with the cuts. Some, unlike San Francisco, still have significant reserves to blunt the effects of the cuts this year and so may be able to absorb the current fiscal reductions. But, as Feinstein told the Judicial Council at its meeting last month: "San Francisco may be the first trial court to fall, but I know that others are soon to follow. And I know you know that, too."

Los Angeles County Presiding Judge Lee Edmon probably spoke for many judges around the state when she said that "all options are on the table at this point." That includes, Edmon said in a statement, "a fundamental restructuring of the courts," such as fewer jury trials, simplifying civil or criminal procedure, turning infractions over to local governments and easing up on court deadlines. Edmon has said her court has already laid off 500 people and wants to avoid, if possible, more furloughs and court closures.

In the third year of cuts, the state's courts are taking a $660 million hit — $350 million in the latest budget cuts and another $310 million originally earmarked for court construction that is being diverted to the state's general fund — from a $3.5 billion budget. "This is unprecedented," said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. "There is no other way to say it. It is an amount that is startling to us."

At its July 22 meeting, the Judicial Council, which oversees court budgets, decided how the cuts ordered by the legislature and governor should be divided: 6.8 percent for the trial courts, 9.7 percent for the California Supreme Court and Court of Appeal and 12 percent for the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC).

Unlike two years ago, when the council ordered court closures once a month in response to a reduced budget, this year the council is leaving it to the local courts to determine how to deal with less money. Feinstein and some other judges argued unsuccessfully that the AOC should make bigger reductions — closer to 50 percent — in its operations because they don't directly affect members of the public seeking justice in the courts. The council put off a decision on a recommended 15.2 percent across-the-board cut for next year.

"Every choice is a bad one," said State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Napa, a member of the council. However, she said she was trying to look at the harsh fiscal realities "as an opportunity to do things in a new, creative and innovative way."

The Judicial Council did approve $122.4 million in offsets to lessen the impact of budget reductions on the trial courts. It transferred $56.4 million from the controversial and expensive Court Case Management System (CCMS), which could delay further implementation of that program, and will give the trial courts $3 million saved from the court interpreter program in fiscal year 2009-2010.

Judge Feinstein
Judge Feinstein

Three years ago, the San Francisco courts had 591 employees and a budget of $98 million. Through a hiring freeze, today it has 483 employees — an 18 percent vacancy rate — and an $88 million budget. As of July 1, the start of the current fiscal year, the court had to absorb another $6.2 million hit because of state budget cutbacks, meaning that on Sept. 30, the staff will drop to 280. Even with the belt tightening, the San Francisco courts face an $11.13 million deficit next year. "Now we're broke and it will not be easy to ever put this court back together again," Feinstein said. She added that if the $4 billion in anticipated statewide revenue doesn't materialize, things will be even worse. "The future is very, very bleak for our courts," she said.

On Oct. 3, when "Closed" signs are posted in 25 of the 63 courtrooms, "the civil division will essentially be out of business," she said. Although litigants can continue to file cases, they will sit on shelves for close to five years. Only civil cases with a statutory time limit will proceed to trial. Instead of 15 civil trial departments, there will be three. Two complex litigation departments, which handle lengthy business trials, will be shuttered. Also closed — one law and motion/discovery department, one case management department, one juvenile dependency court and one juvenile traffic court. Feinstein said she believes some civil cases will be filed in other counties and she hopes to "create a robust settlement program" that includes triage of the cases that are filed. Asked if the closures are a boon to private judging, she pointed out how expensive an option that is. "We're not free here, but we're significantly less expensive," she said. "Our job is to serve those who cannot be served elsewhere."

Small claims will remain open, as will the asbestos management court (now devoted to California Environmental Quality Act matters), unlawful detainer court (evictions), family law, juvenile dependency and child support. Divorce matters, which currently wrap up within six months and a day, will take a year and a half. Criminal cases will be processed normally; in fact, the court will add one felony trial department.

Judges cannot be laid off, so San Francisco will have 50 judges presiding over 37 courtrooms. They'll pick up the work of the 11 commissioners and hearing officers and in some cases, three judges will share a single courtroom. Feinstein called San Francisco "judge-rich and staff-poor."

Feinstein laid the blame squarely on the governor and legislature, who "have so brazenly used the judicial branch as their ATM in an attempt to solve" the budget crisis. "We cannot be their ATM any longer." State lawmakers have left the courts no choice, she said, adding that the trial courts "are at the bottom of the priority list in Sacramento."

The Judicial Council and the AOC came in for a tongue-lashing as well. Feinstein said she is "very frustrated" with the Judicial Council, which she said is dominated by two or more counties. More than a billion dollars has been spent on CCMS, which Feinstein believes should be severely cut back or jettisoned entirely. At this point, however, she said, "I don't think anything the Judicial Council does will be sufficient. We're too deep into the problem." Without being specific, Feinstein said she's been "disappointed" in some of the AOC's decisions because they've not been "in the best interests of this court or San Francisco."

Ronald G. Overholt, recently named interim administrative director of the AOC, said the AOC is wrestling with the same budget problems as the trial courts. "We're not avoiding them or somehow immune from them whatsoever," he said. 

He denied charges that the administrative offices have been on a hiring spree, adding that the AOC plans layoffs, eliminating 100 vacant positions and continuing furloughs of the past two and a half years. He also noted the AOC is taking the heaviest brunt of the reduced judicial budget. "The villain here is the economy and it affects all of us," he said.

Since 2009, the judicial branch baseline budget has been reduced by 30 percent, so local courts have some experience working with less. For almost a year in 2009 and 2010, the courts closed every third Wednesday of each month. Many judges took 5 percent voluntary pay cuts and court fees increased. Santa Clara, Los Angeles, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa, Napa and Sacramento are just a few counties that have already laid off workers or not filled vacant positions. San Mateo stopped accepting court papers for family law, civil or probate cases in one courthouse.

That has resulted in longer waits in line, longer time for divorces to be completed, and slower child and spousal support determinations, among other things.

"We can all talk in the abstract about reductions, cuts, mitigation and budget numbers," Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe told the Judicial Council. "But we all understand that we are really talking about people's lives."

Diane Curtis and Kristina Horton Flaherty contributed to this report.