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L.A. County court system begins worker furloughs

Most of the county's 600 courtrooms were closed Wednesday. Employees will be off the third Wednesday of each month until next June as part of an effort to fill an expected $138-million shortfall.

July 16, 2009|Victoria Kim and Alexandra Zavis

Brian and Shaleena Cabral, a young couple from Bakersfield, thought Wednesday would be the day they would put a 10-month-long headache behind them.

What started as a "fix-it" ticket for an expired registration had ballooned into a $1,600 fine for a missed court date. Brian's license was put on hold, and he lost his job as a pizza delivery man. Wednesday, armed with documents, they got up at 4 a.m. and drove two hours to a downtown Los Angeles courtroom to finally explain themselves before a judge.

Instead, they arrived at the Metropolitan Courthouse on South Hill Street to find themselves among a number of other frustrated citizens experiencing firsthand the latest fallout of the state's budget crisis.

Most operations at Los Angeles County Superior Court, the nation's largest trial court system, came to a halt Wednesday, the first of 12 furlough days to help fill an anticipated $138-million budget shortfall due to cuts allotted to the courts by Sacramento in the fiscal year starting this month. The closures are scheduled for the third Wednesday of each month until next June and will probably continue the following year, officials said.

"For the first time in modern history, we've been forced to shut down most of our court systems because, frankly, we can't afford to keep it operating," presiding Judge Charles "Tim" McCoy said at a news conference Wednesday. "Shutting down our court system . . . draws us near to a line that ultimately we dare not cross."

Most of the county's 600 courtrooms were closed Wednesday, and 93% of 5,400 court employees were told to stay home, taking what amounts to about a 5% pay cut. On any given day, the courts normally handle 10,000 hearings and serve about 100,000 who pass through the county's 50 courthouses.

At least one courtroom was kept open in most courthouses to handle required hearings and felony bench warrants, court spokeswoman Vania Stuelp said. Those courtrooms also heard domestic violence, elder abuse and civil harassment restraining order cases involving stalking or threats of violence.

The closures and unpaid furloughs are expected to save about $18 million. Officials said courtrooms may be permanently closed and up to 25% of staff laid off if there are no drastic improvements in the court's budget outlook.

In addition, judges, whose salaries are protected by state law, are volunteering to take pay cuts to help with the budget situation, McCoy said. Judges began signing up for the cut last week and are "overwhelmingly" choosing to share the pain, he said.

In the budget enacted in February, trial courts statewide took more than $200 million in cuts, officials said.

Officials at the state's Administrative Office of the Courts said Mendocino County courthouses also shut their doors Wednesday. Orange County Superior Court was to begin monthly closures in August. The Legislature is working on measures to take the furloughs statewide, spokesman Philip Carrizosa said.

Wednesday morning, hundreds of people showed up at the Metropolitan Courthouse, unaware of the closures. Four administrators were handing out new court dates and a piece of paper proving people had shown up for court.

The Cabrals, both 22, who are barely making ends meet and going to school, were told to come back July 20. They said they were frustrated because Shaleena's day off from her part-time job at the mall and the gas they used on their trip to L.A. would take a toll on their budget.

"This is stopping life," Brian Cabral said. "We're going to school and planning for our future, but it's our own government that is giving us all these obstacles and making it harder."

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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