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A longer day in court

Expect delays for a variety of civil cases in L.A. County with the elimination of more than 500 jobs.

June 13, 2013|Hailey Branson-Potts
  • Kent Hung moves case files at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown L.A. that arrived from other L.A. County courthouses that will be closed soon.
Kent Hung moves case files at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown L.A.… (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)

If you want to sue your landlord, divorce your spouse or fight a traffic ticket this year, you'll probably pay more, travel farther and wait longer.

As a result of the latest round of deep cuts to Los Angeles County's court system, court reporters will no longer be provided for most civil cases. Traffic courts will be clogged -- already, they are so busy that people at the end of long lines are given vouchers guaranteeing them a spot near the front of the line the next day.

A projected $85-million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1 prompted the cuts, forcing the closure of seven regional courthouses this month and the elimination of more than 500 jobs.

Justice won't be denied, Presiding Judge David S. Wesley said. But for many, it certainly will be delayed.

"It's the biggest change in the way law has been practiced in Los Angeles County in the history of the court," said Wesley, who has been in charge of cutting the county's court budget.

Los Angeles County has the state's largest court system with about 4,400 employees, some 540 judges and an annual operating budget last year of $734 million. Wesley said the cuts he's made address about $56 million of the shortfall.

In a deal worked out this week, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators agreed to restore about $20 million in funding to the county's courts. Reimbursements from the state and the use of some bond money should close the L.A. County courts' remaining budget gap, officials said.

Over the last five years, the judiciary's general fund support has been slashed by more than 65%, officials said.

The courts have supplemented the budget by tapping into reserve funds and taking money that had been earmarked for capital improvements and technology upgrades. Now, those sources of funds have been largely drained.

On Friday, 177 employees in Los Angeles County will lose their jobs, officials said this week. An additional 139 people will receive demotions and pay cuts, 223 will be transferred to other work locations and some positions will go unfilled, officials said. Including this round of cuts, the court has lost nearly 1,400 positions since 2008, said Mary Hearn, a court spokeswoman.

The Metropolitan Courthouse, a traffic court in downtown Los Angeles, already had problems dealing with the caseload, and the situation is likely to get worse, officials said.

The court is expected to receive more than 50,000 additional traffic cases this year because of the elimination of traffic courts elsewhere, according to court officials.

Earlier this week, the line outside the courthouse stretched around the building. Christy Harutunian, 23, was at the end of the line, clutching her paperwork. She said she traveled from her home in Glendale to resolve a traffic ticket from February 2012 for making an illegal lane change while driving home from school. She was fined $300.

Harutunian, a USC pharmacy student, had to make the trip Monday because the court had neglected to send her traffic school paperwork to the Department of Motor Vehicles, she said. Including travel time, it took her most of the afternoon to resolve the problem, she said.

L.A. County Superior Court used to have a traffic call center offering operator assistance, but that was eliminated in an earlier round of budget cuts.

Under Wesley's cost-cutting plan, several case types, such as small claims and personal injury lawsuits, have been consolidated to a handful of locations throughout the county, called "hub" courts. The number of courts hearing eviction cases, for example, has been reduced to five from 26.

Court employees recently unloaded 90 large boxes of files at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, which is absorbing thousands of cases as it becomes a hub location for several types of litigation. In one closed courtroom, filing cabinets now stand in the place of audience benches. There is now a three-month backlog of unprocessed records there.

Seven L.A. County courthouses shut their doors this month: Whittier, Huntington Park, Pomona North, Malibu, West Los Angeles, San Pedro and the David V. Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center in South Los Angeles. The San Pedro Courthouse Annex on Beacon Street closed earlier this year.

Humberto Benitez, a public defender who worked at Kenyon and was reassigned this month to the Airport Courthouse, said Kenyon's closure will hit the community hard. Attorneys, he said, are concerned that young people will not attend their court hearings if they have to travel farther to reach larger, more crowded courthouses.

The court cuts are not only inconvenient for litigants, officials said, they also are costing them more money.

In her State of the Judiciary address in March, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said courts statewide have needed to impose higher filing fees and higher fines to offset some of the cuts.

"All of us are concerned that the high fines and higher penalties are falling on those least able to afford it," she said, adding that she worried the judicial branch "may become a user-fee institution."

Statewide, the first filing fee for a general civil case has increased to $435 from $320 in 2008. A divorce filing has also increased by more than 35% over that time period to $435 today. The cost of getting a certified copy of a court document has increased to $25 from $15.

Wesley said that civil courts have born the brunt of the cuts because criminal courts are so important to public safety.

But civil courts, he said, also deal with important and urgent matters, such as restraining orders and custody battles.

"We are a place of last resort for people in distress that have issues, and it doesn't matter if they're rich people or poor people," he said. "So when I cut those services, everybody's going to suffer."

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hailey.branson@latimes.com

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