Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Good Beginning.

Caught in the cross-hairs of California's state budget crisis, the Los Angeles Superior Court — the largest trial court system in the nation — this week laid off 329 employees and closed 16 courtrooms. Facing an unprecedented $79 million shortfall, Presiding Judge Charles W. McCoy said that the courts will lay-off an additional 500 workers and shutter up to a total of 50 courtrooms come September. Announcing the cutbacks in a courtroom closed months ago to save money, McCoy said, "Today is a sad day for justice in Los Angeles." With attrition, McCoy expects the 5,400-employee court system to lose approximately 1,000 employees, a 20% reduction.

The 16 closed courtrooms handled criminal, family law, civil law along with complex litigation and small claims case loads. Similar cuts are taking place in courts across the state. McCoy says the 100,000 Angelenos who use the courts each day can expect growing case backlogs, longer lines and delays in processing judgments. Among those losing their jobs: clerks, court reporters and supervisors. Judge Marjorie Steinberg says her family law departments are losing mental health professionals who help parents negotiate their disputes before they go to court: "You can imagine how tough that is on a family, and on the children, whose parents are fighting."

The courts, which make up 2% of the state budget, have thus joined the slash-and-cut regimen that has befallen school districts, cities, and social services across California as the state deals with a $21 billion shortfall this year. (That comes on the heels of last year's $40 billion deficit.)

The trial system will not be affected uniformly. Statutory and constitutional guarantees in the criminal justice system protect the right to a speedy trial, says Allan Parachini, spokesman for the Los Angeles Superior Court, so "we really can't go to the criminal courts for the cuts... what is happening is that resources are being bled out of other areas, especially civil, to make sure we can meet all our obligations in criminal." Ten years ago the average time to trial in a general civil case in Los Angeles County was an eye popping five years. Reforms and increased efficiency reduced the wait to 16 months but Parachini says he expects civil case delays to spike again.

"In addition to the impact on the civil courts, our family and juvenile courts are about to take huge hits," says Don Mike Anthony, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association. He says custody orders, divorce and child support matters that now take 30 days will soon take four months. In addition, the court will no longer provide financial support and supervising personnel to the Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) program which works on behalf of abused, neglected and abandoned children involved in dependency court matters. Among the mundane cuts, a reduction of the popular night traffic court from twice to once a month.

"We have explored every financial scenario before taking this action, but more than 80% of our budget goes to salaries and benefits, which forces today's drastic measures," said McCoy. With annual court budget deficits expected to be as high as $140 million over the next four years, court officials say up to 1,800 staff positions may be eliminated. Last year, the California judicial council instituted a one-day per month closure of all state courts as both a cost-savings.
A series of unprecedented statewide court closures one day each month, while necessary to deal with California's budget crisis, will also bring unwanted case delays to thousands beginning this week, San Francisco's presiding superior court judge said today.

"This is not a proud day for us," Judge James McBride said at a news conference at San Francisco's civil courthouse. The court is one of several in San Francisco and throughout California that will close this Wednesday, and every third Wednesday through June of next year.

But McBride said the decision, made in July by the California Judicial Council, which oversees the state court system, was "the only rational choice to make," as opposed to "massive layoffs" of experienced court employees or cuts in court programs.

The closures, the equivalent of a new court holiday during which employees will not be paid, will affect each of the superior courts of California's 58 counties, as well as the six regional appeals courts and the California Supreme Court.

"We will be, in that week, cramming five days' work into four," McBride said.

"The work's not going to go away," he said.

The Judicial Council ordered the furlough days to help close the state judicial system's estimated $414 million deficit, which McBride called a "devastating crash in our budget."
The closures will save an estimated $94.3 million.

Many state judges, including in San Francisco, have also reportedly agreed to voluntary 5-percent salary givebacks to the courts. Superior court judges in California are paid approximately $179,000 per year.

"The unintended yet inevitable symbolism of 'Closed' signs on our courthouses — institutions that embody our nation's revered democratic ideas — is a graphic indication of the severity of California's economic crisis," said California Chief Justice Ronald George addressing the state legislature last year. "For many Californians the courts represent their primary — and sometimes their most important — interaction with state government. Courts are not a luxury to be funded in good times and ignored in bad times."

Meanwhile, the negative economic ripple effect of cuts to the Los Angeles civil courts could result in a nearly $30 billion hit to the local economy over the next four years, according to a study commissioned by the Los Angeles Superior Court. According to the study, the legal services industry would take an estimated $13 billion loss and businesses operating in uncertainty, because of pending civil disputes, would accumulate another $15 billion in potential losses. The decline in economic activity would then result in an additional $1.6 billion in losses.

A Sacramento judge who fought the once-a-month court closures by the state Judicial Council said the action is unwarranted locally and will result in monstrous new backlogs.

Superior Court Judge Maryanne G. Gilliard said the state could have made up the $94.3 million saved with the closures by cutting the Judicial Council's operational arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and scrapping a $1.1 billion computer system that many local judges have harshly criticized.

"I think that statewide closure of the courts by order of the Judicial Council is unprecedented and, beyond that, is unwarranted, especially in light of the fact that there are obvious areas in the AOC's own budget that could have been tapped in order to not restrict the public's constitutional right of access to their courts," Gilliard said in an interview in her chambers.

"This was an unnecessary order," she said.

The judge blasted the growth of the court administrative office's budget from $100 million to $177 million over the past five years and its increase in employees from 491 to 785. Agency officials have defended the increases as a reflection of their taking over executive authority for court operations throughout the state.

Gilliard said that as many as 20 county court systems in the state, including Sacramento's, have the resources to stay in operation and avoid the closures.

"We could keep our doors open, but we're being told we have to shut down because it's more important that there be uniformity rather than access to justice and the courts for those counties able to do so," she said.

In Sacramento, backlogged local courts have forced civil trials into years-long delays and Gilliard said the shutdown will extend delays to other areas.

"Let's talk about abused and neglected children whose cases are going to be delayed," Gilliard said. "Let's talk about crime victims. Let's talk about those accused of crimes. Let's talk about jurors who could be very well in the midst of deliberations on a murder trial being told they have to go home.

"It is significant, and the public should be aware that the Thursday after the Wednesday shutdowns, it's going to be monstrous in terms of dealing with the press of cases (that) we're not going to be able to get to on Wednesday," she said.

An LA Times editorial said that: With the potentially catastrophic effects of court closures and layoffs on our economy, you'd think that the Judicial Council, the statewide body that oversees courts, and its administrative agency, the AOC, would make solving this problem their top priority.

Unfortunately, the AOC and the Judicial Council have busied themselves with other tasks. An unfinished, $2-billion IT project, for example, has mushroomed over the last several years to more than five times its originally projected cost. There's no direct oversight of AOC's budget, no independent audits, no access to its internal records and no whistle-blowing protection for staff. In short, it's an entity that receives special legal protection by the state to operate outside the realm of public scrutiny and accountability, a status the justices who oversee it fiercely protect. The problem is so bad that in just one year, and with no staffing or budget, an organization of dissident judges who want more accountability for the AOC and Judicial Council has already signed on more than 10% of all state judges.


ichbinalj said...

The California Judicial Council is about as useful as the mammory glands on a boar.

ichbinalj said...

Every day is a sad day for justice in the Superior Court.

ichbinalj said...

How heavy did the axe fall on the Norwalk Family Court? Nepotism has destroyed the efficiency of the court.

ichbinalj said...

Court Closures?

Awesome. But what we really need to do is:

1) Start polling the legal community about who the worst Judges and Commissioners are, and send these flakes packing.

Being a Trial Court judge or Family Court Commissioner shouldn't be a "safe haven" for very marginal lawyers.
So, why is SF's worst judge (per 1998 study) Charlene Padovani XYZ still on the bench?

2) Make it more expensive for parasitic litigants to go before capricious flakes like Padovani.

3) Make it easier for lawyers to speak out against loony politically oriented judges, to end the corruption.

ichbinalj said...

If you have ever been on a jury, you know how little the Sacramento judges are on the bench! Most don't get started until until 11:45.....lunch until 1:30pm then court ends at 4:30 at the latest. (tanner said)

ichbinalj said...


Good Morning all,

I just wanted to share some information that the West Valley detention as of today released 50 inmates; not only West Antelope Valley, but also San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties. By the end of the month they will be releasing about 750 inmates. They are counting on it saving the state millions of dollars.

So I was warned to make sure I'm aware of my surroundings at all times. Make sure you lock your doors to your house and car. Don't walk out at night by yourself. When leaving your house, get in your car, lock the doors, and start it before you open your garage. They are expecting a lot of things to happen since these guys need money and won't be able to find a job. Share this info with your kids so they are aware since I know some of us have kids that walk to and from school. Share it with your family and friends. So everyone be safe, be aware...pass it on to make them aware.
Alex Reynoso
Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office Victim-Witness Assistance Program
3204 Rosemead Blvd., Suite 200
El Monte, CA 91731
(626) 283-5314 Office Videophone
(626) 569-9541 Fax