That Day in Court May Take a While

Greg Lucas
Reporter for Capitol Weekly and Publisher of California’s Capitol website

Resolving a divorce, a custody tussle, a contract dispute, a landlord tenant fight, an unpaid debt or any number of multimillion-dollar or small claims civil issues takes longer and costs more than it used to.

And it’ll get costlier and even more time-consuming, experts say, because of the steady diet of state budget cuts force fed to the courts in California, the nation’s largest judicial system. Since June of 2009, the state general fund’s share of the court’s $3.1 billion budget has fallen from 56 percent to 20 percent.

“Devastating,” is how Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, describes the impact of the five years of reductions totaling $1.2 billion. The chief justice echoes many of her colleagues on the bench – and those who appear before them.

The burden of the cuts appears to fall hardest on Californians who might not have the means to hire a lawyer. Self-help centers designed to assist them have been curtailed or eliminated.

Increasingly, Californians are spending more time and expense commuting to a court and waiting there for service, all the while being absent from work.

In some cases that delay can be dangerous, like having to wait several days to a week for a restraining order in a domestic violence dispute.

“A lot of things are being delayed and some will have severe consequences,” said Allan Zaremberg, CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce. “And it’s those people who can least afford to have their lives disrupted that are the ones most impacted.”

In his budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a $200 million reduction in state support for courts. The impact on court operations would be blunted by taking a like amount earmarked for court construction and spending it on court operations.

In light of the Democratic governor’s move, the Judicial Council voted Jan. 17 to “indefinitely delay” four courthouse projects in Sacramento, Nevada, Los Angeles, and Fresno counties. Seven other projects were delayed in October, also for budget reasons.

Brown says he has treated courts significantly better than other parts of state government in his budget.

But, he argues, closing the spending gaps of $26.6 billion and $15.7 billion in his first two budgets required belt-tightening by everyone.

Courts point out that Brown’s proposed actions for the next fiscal year follow a one-time cut of nearly $500 million this year. Like Brown’s current proposal, much of this year’s reduction was offset by $120 million in fee increases and transfers from the court’s construction fund and other sources.

Boosting filing fees, tapping reserve accounts and diverting nearly $1 billion from courthouse capital improvements have helped cover some lost revenue.

So has the closing of courtrooms all over the state.

Some permanently.

Los Angeles announced in November the shuttering of 10 regional courthouses including those in Malibu, Pomona, San Pedro and Avalon on Catalina Island.

Earlier in 2012, the state’s largest county announced closing 56 courtrooms by June 30 to close a $30 million operating hole.

The result – just like in other parts of the state – is longer waits, delayed trials and furloughed or laid off court workers.

When it announced the courtroom closures last spring, Los Angeles also said it would no longer provide court reporters for civil trials.

And, the court noted, 329 of its employees had been pink–slipped over the prior two years while 229 retired and their positions left vacant. Still, Los Angeles targeted another 100 non-courtroom personnel for lay-offs.

Over the past four fiscal years, the state Judicial Council says its number of  “permanent filled staffing positions” in the state court system has been reduced by 2,263, a 12 percent reduction.

“We should all be alarmed. Every single one of us,” says Sen. Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa Democrat who chairs the upper house’s Judiciary Committee.

“There can’t be a healthy, functioning democracy without a healthy judiciary.”

The courts are a separate branch of government. They can’t reduce their workload or ratchet down costs by restricting “eligibility.”

On the other hand, their autonomy – each of the state’s 58 counties has its own court – makes it difficult to gauge operational efficiencies and implement across-the-board cost-savings solutions.

Brown says he has respected the unique position of the courts.

His previous two budgets — and his proposed spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 — treat courts fairly benignly compared to other recipients of state revenue.

Public schools, for example, have been shorted $9.3 billion over the past five years. The budget for state universities was cut by 25 percent.

But the Democratic governor stresses that the one-time measures that have helped court funding stay relatively stable will be used up by 2014.

“We may not be able to do what we’ve done so far after this next budget,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown’s Department of Finance. “The court’s reserves and the balances in the other funds will be pretty much drawn down. Ways have to be found to achieve additional savings.”

Courts say that Brown’s insistence they spend down their reserves to no more than 1 percent of their overall budgets is unworkable. One percent isn’t enough to cope with monthly cash challenges.

“We’re trying very hard to persuade the legislative and executive branches that this 1 percent fund balance rule should be reversed,” said Judge Steven Jahr, a retired Shasta County jurist named administrative director of the courts last summer.

“Reserves allow courts to advance costs. Make payroll. It’s a savings account that can be utilized for cash flow needs,” Jahr told Capitol Weekly. “ If you don’t have a savings account or fund balance to manage those issues, you’ve got a big problem.”

Under the law, criminal matters take precedent over civil. So, on the natural, civil matters take longer before they’re heard.

Cutbacks have sharply lengthened that wait.

In Sacramento County, a law and motion hearing is now calendared for eight months in the future. The usual wait used to be one month, Zaremberg said.

The time between a Shasta County judge issuing a temporary custody and visitation order and a final one has grown from six weeks to three months.

Small claims court, which handles disputes involving up to $7,500, has also felt the impact.

While plenty of lawyers are available to volunteer to as judges, fewer court workers has meant insufficient personnel to staff courtrooms.

“Like everyone else, the courts should look to become more efficient,” said Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, a Sacramento Democrat. “But ultimately we have to be prepared to put more general tax money into them because, like education, the courts benefit all of us.”

The state’s 58 courts have taken different steps to meet the drop in revenue from the state.

Besides Los Angeles, 38 other counties have either closed courtrooms and courthouses or reduced hours of operation, according to the Judicial Council. Alameda now shuts its Court Clerk’s office at 2:30 pm.

Fresno closed courthouses in Clovis, Coalinga, Firebaugh, Kingsburg, Reedley and Sanger.

San Bernardino announced the closing in May of its Barstow courthouse.

Rather than close courtrooms or courthouses outright, some counties restrict the places certain cases can be heard.

Los Angeles has limited time-sensitive landlord tenant disputes to five or six locations throughout the 4,752 square mile county. There is no venue for landlord tenant matters in the rental-rich San Fernando Valley causing landlords and renters there to search for another courthouse.

Besides being physically harder to file an unlawful detainer – for delinquent rent, eviction or both  — it’s also more expensive.

Five years ago, filing a landlord-tenant case ranged from $195 to $315. Now it’s a low of $240 and a high of $385, the court says.

A civil filing fee – divorce, custody, probate – has climbed from a high of $320 in 2008 to $435 in 2012 – more than a 25 percent increase.

The base fine for running a red light has jumped from $425 in 2008 to $542 in 2012, the court says. During the same period, speeding tickets grew by $99 to $290.

Critics of the cutbacks say the impact of closing satellite courthouses or courtrooms ripples throughout the justice system.

Fewer available courtrooms mean even criminal trials with priority won’t come to trial as quickly. Inmates housed in already overcrowded jails will be held longer.

If a peace officer normally patrolling Malibu, Coalinga or Barstow, for example, is summoned to the county seat to testify about a traffic violation or some other legal matter, that can be a full day of law enforcement lost to those smaller communities.

Financially, to increase services, the courts need more money from the state or other sources like higher fees, although judge and others acknowledge fees can be boosted only so much.

Dickinson says the issue involves more than just money.

“Beyond the tangible consequences, if you start to eviscerate the third leg of the stool, you start to undercut the basic belief in there being a fair and civilized way to resolve disputes.”

Greg Lucas, a contributing editor of Capitol Weekly, is the editor of California’s Capitol and the host of Politics on Tap on the California Channel.

Crossposted on Capitol Weekly

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