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L.A. County courts face $30 million in cuts

The latest reductions will close 56 courtrooms and eliminate 350 employees. The failure of Gov. Jerry Brown's November tax initiative could trigger further cuts.

April 18, 2012|By Ashley Powers and Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Cutbacks in 2009 resulted in furlough days. Now, the Los Angeles County court system is preparing for a $30-million cutback.
Cutbacks in 2009 resulted in furlough days. Now, the Los Angeles County… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

The sprawling Los Angeles County court system, which already lopped $70 million from its budget this fiscal year, will slash an additional $30 million in the coming months by laying off workers, closing courtrooms and axing a Juvenile Court program, court officials said Tuesday.

The cuts comes as California's judicial budget, which has been pared back in recent years as the state struggled economically, faces the potential loss of tens of millions of dollars in 2013 if a tax measure on the November ballot fails.

The perpetual state budget shortfalls have forced numerous courts to slash hours and staffing, delaying divorces and stretching out custody battles throughout California. But Los Angeles' trial court system is the nation's largest, making the effect of budget cuts particularly dramatic.

"These extraordinary actions cut into the core work of the courts," Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon said in a statement. "With risks of more reductions on the horizon, we are already rationing justice.... The public cannot tolerate any further major service reductions."

Los Angeles courts have already laid off hundreds of employees and left more positions unfilled, resulting in longer lines to file paperwork and cases that plod along at a snail's pace.

This fiscal year, the system shaved $70 million from its budget in part by freezing wages and forcing staff members to take furlough days. But it still needs to cut $48 million more. The measures announced Tuesday will save the court system $30 million, meaning that it will begin the next fiscal year with a deficit regardless of how much money state lawmakers dole out to the judicial system, spokeswoman Mary Hearn said.

By the end of June, the courts will have 350 fewer employees and 56 fewer courtrooms, which officials said will slow down the resolution of criminal, civil, family court and juvenile delinquency cases.

Judges whose courtrooms are closed will be reassigned, officials said.

The courts will also stop providing court reporters for civil trials and pare back their use in motions hearings, officials said, meaning litigants will have to hire their own transcribers if they want to record testimony.

"Never before has a budget crisis dealt so crippling a blow to our court," Edmon and John Clarke, the court executive officer, wrote in a memo to staff.

Among the courts that will close are four juvenile delinquency courts.

"When we cut courts, that means there is less time to spend on the cases," Juvenile Court Presiding Judge Michael Nash said in a recent interview. "We have 20,000 kids on probation and we want to help those kids to turn their lives around. The less time you have to deal with them, the less likely you are going to be able to do that."

A program that annually sees more than 100,000 minors in trouble for low-level offenses faces elimination, as well. The Superior Court's assistant presiding judge, David Wesley, said in a statement that the Informal Juvenile and Traffic Court program was a "crucial element of the juvenile justice system."

"These courts have allowed us to address tens of thousands of offenses in a more appropriate forum than delinquency court," he said.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed halting cuts to the judiciary next fiscal year; it lost $350 million during the last budget cycle. But that depends on the fate of Brown's proposed tax initiative on the November ballot, which is expected to face fierce opposition from anti-tax groups.

If the initiative fails, $5.4 billion in so-called trigger cuts will take effect in January and yank $125 million from the state court system, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told reporters this week.

"Since 2008, the judicial branch budget has seen an unprecedented cut in its ability to function, struggling mightily to provide justice for all," Cantil-Sakauye said at a news conference on the Capitol steps. "We're seeing 'Closed' signs in courtrooms up and down the state."

Los Angeles Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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