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Budget cuts to worsen California court delays, officials say

Extended waits for lawsuits to reach court, longer custody fights and even lengthy battles to challenge traffic citations are predicted.

July 20, 2011|By Maura Dolan and Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times
  • The San Francisco Superior Court is laying off more than 40 percent of its staff and shuttering 25 courtrooms because of budget cuts. Judge Katherine Feinstein, center, said that the cuts mean it will take many more hours to pay a traffic ticket in person, up to 18 months to finalize a divorce and five years for a lawsuit to go to trial.
The San Francisco Superior Court is laying off more than 40 percent of its… (Jeff Chiu / AP Photo )

Reporting from San Francisco and Los Angeles — Californians will soon face longer lines in courthouses, delays in finalizing divorces, prolonged custody battles and extended waits for lawsuits to go to trial as a result of deep budget cuts approved by state lawmakers.

California Judicial Branch leaders will meet Friday to vote on how to allocate the courts' shrinking budget, which will be slashed $350 million from a total of $3.5 billion. The cut, aimed at helping close the state's budget deficit, means the courts have seen more than a 30% reduction in state general funds over the last three years.

San Francisco Superior Court is expected to be one of the hardest hit in the state. Part of the reason for the crisis there is that the court chose to use unpaid furloughs and money from its reserve, rather than layoffs, to make budget cuts in the past. Now, it is struggling to keep its doors open.

San Francisco court officials have predicted a five-year wait for lawsuits to get to trial. A divorce, which used to be finalized in five months, may now take 18 months, courts officials said. The court has sent layoff notices to 40% of its employees.

The fiscal crisis has left the state's top judicial officers scrambling to keep the system running.

"We are juggling," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Tuesday. Any expense that can be delayed will be delayed, she said. "Right now, today is the only thing in our sights."

The cumulative cuts may require changes in law to allow for shorter trials and trials without juries, she and other judges said.

"The adage 'Justice delayed is justice denied' will be a predictable and inevitable result of these reductions," the state's judges told lawmakers last month. "The public relies on California courts when they are most vulnerable."

In Los Angeles County Superior Court, by far the state's largest trial court, judges say years of cuts have already left them with a tight operation. Last year, 329 employees were laid off and more positions were left unfilled. Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon said the court was striving to reduce costs methodically, but "the sorts of dramatic cutbacks that other California courts are implementing may be felt here in Los Angeles as well."

Edmon cited the case of a father who waited hours in line to fill out a custody form to prevent his wife from taking their child out of state. He was told the clerks would not be able to get to him and he should return the next day.

"As the work of the courtrooms is slowed for the lack of staff, matters will be calendared many months in the future, leaving litigants with no expectation of relief or resolution of their cases for extended periods of time," Edmon said in a statement.

Even fighting traffic citations will be a lengthy battle, she said. Now it takes nine months before a motorist can contest a ticket, and the delay will grow. Those who win their cases will have to wait even more months to be refunded fees and fines, she said.

Some judges have seized on the budget disaster to criticize what they have long complained is a bloated, top-heavy and costly bureaucracy: the Administrative Office of the Courts, which operates the state's court system. Among the judges' concerns is that the bureaucracy carries out sweeping statewide decisions that they believe would be better determined at a local level.

"As California cuts essential government services, every dollar budgeted for the AOC's growing, highly paid bureaucracy must be justified," Steve White, presiding judge of Sacramento County Superior Court, wrote in a letter this month to the Judicial Council, the committee of judges that makes policy decisions carried out by the AOC.

The Judicial Council is scheduled to decide at a meeting Friday how the cuts will be distributed among its trial, appellate and supreme courts, and administrative offices. The council is expected to put spending on hold for a much-criticized computer system, designed to link all the courts in the state but plagued by cost overruns and poor management.

The budget crisis will also force the courts to put off repairs and new construction.

State lawmakers raided Judiciary Branch funds for courthouse construction to balance this year's budget. The funds, built up through legal fees and fines, were supposed to be used to replace decrepit courthouses riddled with health and safety problems. State legislators said the funds would be repaid in more solvent times.

Cantil-Sakauye said she plans on leaving it to individual county courts to decide how to manage the deep cuts.

As a result, court hours will probably vary from county to county. Several court officials, including from Orange County Superior Court, said Tuesday that they were waiting for Friday's Judicial Council meeting before announcing specific belt-tightening measures.

Meanwhile, courts in the state's 58 counties are preparing for the worst.

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