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Calif. court to cut staff, close courtrooms in wake of budget crisis

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Apr 19, 2012



LOS ANGELES (Legal Newsline) - The Los Angeles Superior Court announced Tuesday that it will reduce its staff by nearly 350 workers, close 56 courtrooms, reduce its use of court reporters and eliminate its Informal Juvenile Traffic Courts program.

Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon said the plan is the most significant reduction of services in the court's history.

"Staffing reductions due to budget cuts over the past 10 years have forced our court to reduce staffing by 24 percent, while case filings continue to increase," she said in a statement.

"This has created incredible pressures on our court to keep up with our work. We cannot endure these pressures for much longer."

Edmon said the staffing reductions are required to deal with the state's budget crisis.

The judicial branch's budget, which represents nearly 3 percent of California's budget, has seen reductions of nearly 30 percent since 2008.

The court system is currently facing a $350 billion budget reduction.

The cut, passed by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, is the deepest reduction in state court history.

Edmon said the superior court has managed its share of the cuts by spending down year-end fund balances, freezing wages, furloughing court staff and eliminating staff positions, saving $70 million as of last fiscal year.

"This year, the state cuts are forcing us to reduce our spending by an additional $30 million -- on top of the $70 million in reductions we have already made," she explained.

"There will be as many as 350 dedicated, skilled court workers who will no longer be serving the residents of Los Angeles County. When we lose those people, we will no longer be able to shield the core work of the court -- the courtroom -- from the budget crisis."

The superior court's $30 million reduction plan, set to take effect by June 30, includes:

- The closing of 56 courtrooms. The courtrooms affected include 24 civil, 24 criminal, three family, one probate and four juvenile delinquency courts. The caseloads of those courtrooms are being distributed among the remaining courtrooms;

- As of May 15, the court will no longer provide court reporters for civil trials. In addition, after June 18, court reporters will be available for civil law-and-motion matters on a limited basis;

- The court will make "significant" cuts to its non-courtroom staff, including 100 reductions by June 30; and

- The court will eliminate its Information Juvenile Traffic Court program. The program is designed for minors who commit low-level offenses, holding them accountable for their actions by the court and by their parents -- but outside of the traditional delinquency system.

"These courts have allowed us to address tens of thousands of offenses in a more appropriate forum than delinquency court," Assistant Presiding Judge David Wesley said of the program, in a statement. "We are losing a crucial element of the juvenile justice system to lack of funding."

Of the staff reductions, Edmon said, "Our judges and staff have shown incredible dedication and commitment in keeping the court running during these past two years. But these new reductions will not allow it to be business as usual.

"There will be longer lines at clerk's windows across the county and slower responses to the public's needs across the court," she said.

Calling the plan an "extraordinary action," Edmon said she is sad for both the workers being laid off and the public, who also will be affected by the cuts.

"These actions are affecting people who have made a commitment to public service, to justice. We have had incredible cooperation of all our staff and our labor representatives through the past few years of these trying economic times. We should be in a position to reward them, not to have to inflict further pain," she said.

"With risks of more reductions on the horizon, we are already rationing justice. The Judicial Council must find fiscal relief for the trial courts -- from any and all sources. The public cannot tolerate any further major service reductions."

On Monday, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye and others spoke to state lawmakers about the effect of recent budget cuts to the public's access to justice.

They addressed a joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee, Subcommittee No. 5 on Corrections, Public Safety and the Judiciary.

"We in the judicial branch accept our responsibility to help address the state's ongoing fiscal crisis," Cantil-Sakauye said. "But we also are mindful of our duty to ensure that 38 million Californians are assured their rights under our constitution, that businesses and residents are provided lawful means to settle disputes, and that those accused of crimes are prosecuted fairly and expeditiously."

State Sen. Lori Hancock, an Oakland Democrat, told fellow lawmakers they must approve new revenue, or else the courts will continue to face additional cuts.

"The courts are our third branch of government and ultimately, where access is delayed, justice is denied," she said.

The Los Angeles Superior Court isn't the only court to reduce its staffing and services.

According to the Judicial Council of California Courts -- the policymaking body of the state courts -- more than 20 counties have had to do the same.

In fact, some counties have had to close courtrooms entirely, including the San Diego Superior Court, the San Joaquin Superior Court and the Ventura Superior Court.

Others have had to close entire court branches, including Butte, San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, San Diego, Sonoma and Stanislaus counties.

Self-help and family law assistance services also have been reduced or closed in courts throughout the state, according to the council.

"Our justice system is the cornerstone of our democracy," Jon Streeter, president of the California Bar Association, said Monday.

"It is a grave mistake to treat it like an executive branch agency and downsize it for expedience it in troubled economic times. The independence of the judiciary is at stake."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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