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Plan to shut courthouses draws protest

L.A. County's top judge laments the looming closures and layoffs but says budget cuts leave no choice.

March 15, 2013|Hailey Branson-Potts

Arnella Sims already has witnessed the effects of broad cuts to the Los Angeles County court system: The lines in the courthouses are getting longer; the calls from the public angrier.

And Sims -- who has worked as a court reporter for 37 years -- knows things could get much worse.

In the coming months, the Los Angeles County Superior Court is to enact a cost-cutting plan that includes the complete closure of eight regional courthouses, consolidations of court services and layoffs of hundreds of court employees.

Sims and hundreds of others packed the street outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on Thursday to protest the court closures, saying court officials have done little to inform the public of their plans.

Some protesters waved signs bearing the words "Justice delayed is justice denied." Others chanted: "No justice, no peace." They booed each time a speaker mentioned the closures. One woman told the crowd that the decision to close courts was "about the dumbest thing the government has ever done."

The changes come as the court system struggles to close an $85-million budget shortfall by July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year, according to court officials.

The courts are funded by the state, which has slashed funding in recent years, leading to court closures, higher court fees and longer waits for cases to be heard.

This week, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye pleaded with lawmakers to restore funding for state courts during the annual State of the Judiciary address. The state, which has the largest court system in the country, "is facing a crisis in civil rights" because of the cuts, she said.

During Thursday's rally, Service Employees International Union Local 721 President Bob Schoonover said that although the courts "have been hit really hard," county court officials have not been open about their plans and have sought no input from the public.

"I am fairly certain that these judges wouldn't render a decision without a testimony," said Schoonover, whose union represents 3,400 court workers. "Isn't that what we're asking for? We're asking to be heard."

Court officials have said that they are still reaching out to community groups and that budget cuts by the state have left no option but to reduce services.

The rally, organized by activists and unions, was joined at noon by numerous court workers on their lunch breaks.

"Everybody's on pins and needles," said Lorraine Romin, a court reporter who marched clutching a "Keep LA Courts Open" sign. "Are we going to be displaced again, or are we going to be laid off?"

An hour before the rally, representatives of several legal aid organizations stood in front of a federal courthouse a few blocks away to announce a lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Superior Court and the state. The suit alleges that the court's plan to cut costs by reducing the number of courts handling landlord disputes to five from 26 "shuts the courthouse doors on many of the county's most vulnerable residents."

"The unbalanced scales of justice are being further weighted against low-income and disabled people ... with this outrageous plan," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival.

David S. Wesley, presiding judge of the L.A. County Superior Court, said he laments the cost-cutting plan but the budget cuts leave no other option.

"It affects victims, it affects defendants, it affects lawyers, it affects police departments, it affects families, it affects businesses, it affects the rich and the poor," Wesley said.

For years, the system prided itself on providing full-service "neighborhood courts" across the county, Wesley said. But, he said, the budget cuts mean the system simply does not have the resources to continue to provide the same level of services.

The court system will cut 511 positions by June, and "all of them are necessary," Wesley said. Including those cuts, the court has lost 24% of its employees over the last four years, officials said. Meanwhile, the workload continues to increase, they said.

"This hurts," Wesley said of the cuts. "It's really disheartening."

--

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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