California courts continue cuts, closures

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline) -- When Richard Burdge describes the court funding crisis in California, he says even the state's legislators realize they've pushed too far in the past few years.

"They're cutting into the bone, not just the fat," said Burdge, the president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association and owner of The Burdge Law Firm in Los Angeles.

According to the Judicial Council of California, in the past five years, the court system's budget was cut by more than $1 billion. In the same period, the court system lost about 65 percent of the funds it receives from the state's General Fund. More than 114 courtrooms and 22 courthouses were closed, and 30 courts have reduced their hours.

Los Angeles County, which maintains the state's largest court system, continues to experience some of the deepest funding costs. On Friday, the Los Angeles Superior Court announced its plan to eliminate 511 more positions. As a result, 177 people lost their jobs and 139 people were demoted to previously held positions. An additional 223 people were reassigned to new locations.

According to the court, as of July 1, it will have eliminated 24 percent of its budgeted staff positions since the state budget crisis began in 2008.

To handle these staffing cuts, the Los Angeles Superior Court also announced it would close eight courthouses, reduce hours in two other courthouses, and eliminate court reporters in civil courts and referees in juvenile courts, among other changes.

In his statement, Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge David Wesley said the Municipal and Superior Courts unified in order to create the largest neighborhood court and maintain a presence in more communities throughout the county.

"This is not the neighborhood court we worked so hard to build," Wesley said in the statement. "It is not our vision for access to justice. But this is the Court that the state is willing and able to support. We will be using our collective energy as a court to provide access to justice in every case type within the limits of the resources we have been provided."

Burdge began following the California court funding crisis after the market crashed in 2008. He explains that state revenue dropped dramatically, due largely to a loss of income and real estate taxes. The state failed to raise billions of dollars it had committed to the General Fund.

In 2009, the state legislature started cutting the General Fund's allocation for the court system. Most courts initially transferred funding from their reserves to offset the reductions. Some like Los Angeles County began instituting hiring freezes and implementing staff cuts.

"In those early years, while the legislature reduced the allocations from the General Fund to the courts, we were essentially borrowing from Peter to pay Paul," Burdge said. "So, many courts did very little to reduce to their budgets.

"Some trial courts, like Los Angeles, instituted a hiring freeze and had some layoffs in 2011. They had reduced about 500 positions in LA because they didn't see the state General Fund budget improving in the short term. They started spending down their reserves, so they managed the impact on the trial courts."

Burdge contends that as the legislature made more cuts, "the ability to rob Peter to pay Paul started going away." Most state courts spent their remaining reserves, forcing them to turn to courthouse and courtroom closures, and more staff cuts. Now, many residents and business owners drive over an hour to find a courthouse and wait much longer to settle their disputes.

He adds that California has restructured its judicial process, imposing higher filing fees and fines on the people who use its courts.

"The courts are supposed to be an essential function of the government, but they're being funded by users to a large extent instead of all people in the state," Burdge said. "The problem is an access to justice."

Tom Scott, executive director of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, points out that California continues to present one of the nation's worst legal climates. From his perspective, the lack of court funding plays a large role in that problem.

"We don't have enough judges," he said. "We're closing courts. We're cutting court systems back. Civil is taking a backseat to criminal. It's one of the few issues where trial lawyers and groups like mine agree - funding of the courts is a serious problem."

Brian Kabateck, president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, agreed that the court funding crisis affects everyone, from personal injury lawyers to big businesses. But, he says, it especially impacts the residents who no longer have easy access to justice.

"It really affects the battered spouse in the abusive relationship who can't get a restraining order and it affects children who don't have anyone to take care of them because there are no child protective services courts available," he said. "It affects adoptions and it affects veterans who are struggling to get their lives together.

"The courts are there for everyone, and this is a tremendous problem that is really going to plague this state."

Everyone paying attention to the California court funding crisis agrees that the courts need more money to run their operations. While they also agree that the problem yields no easy solutions, they see the recent deal brokered by Gov. Jerry Brown and the legislature as a significant step forward.

Last week, the Assembly Budget Committee announced it would provide $60 million in new funding to the state trial courts. On Friday, both houses of the California legislature passed a $96 billion budget package that included the allocation.

California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye issued a statement after the announcement, applauding the governor and legislature for recognizing that years of budget cuts adversely affected the court system and the state's residents.

"The proposed budget is an initial step forward in restoring the cuts absorbed by the branch," she said in the statement. "We hope that as the state's economy improves, the branch's budget will improve so that we can rebuild the kind of access to justice the public deserves."

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