After Years Of Budget Cuts, Access To California Courts In Doubt

According to the state’s top judge, California trial and appellate courts need an additional $266 million "just to tread water" in the coming fiscal year.
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    LOS ANGELES — The sparkling new 96,500 square-foot courthouse in Porterville, Calif., features nine courtrooms, holding cells for 85 inmates, solar panels, natural lighting and drought-resistant landscaping. The $93-million facility replaced a much smaller courthouse that had only two courtrooms, making it an important addition to a town experiencing a population boom.

    But only four months after the South (Tulare) County Justice Center opened for business, a dark cloud is hanging over it.

    The state of California budgets more than $3 billion a year to its courts, and Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed an increase of more than $100 million for fiscal 2014-15. Even though California’s economic outlook has brightened recently, court officials fear that increase isn’t nearly enough to get the courts out of the deep financial hole into which they have sunk over the past five years.

    According to the state’s top judge, Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, California trial and appellate courts need an additional $266 million “just to tread water” in the coming fiscal year, $612 million to be fully functional and $1.2 billion over three years to make up for past cuts.

    That means lingering uncertainty in Tulare County, which would receive about $950,000 of the proposed budget increase.

    “We are short-handed everywhere you look. We have cut and cut some more,” the presiding judge, Lloyd Hicks, told the local Visalia Times-Delta newspaper. “If we are [to] cut another $2 million, we would be faced with closing the new courthouse.”

    The years of cuts have already forced the closure of 51 courthouses and 205 courtrooms in California, reduced business hours at courts throughout the state, forced people in San Francisco to wait four hours in line to pay traffic tickets and led to increases in court user fees and legal fines.

    “It’s been, ‘Pay more, wait longer,’” said Mark Cope, the presiding judge in Riverside County.

    Last year, impending courtroom closures in Los Angeles County — the country’s largest county court system — drew protests outside the downtown Stanley Mosk courthouse, with dozens of people chanting “Save our courts!” Legal aid providers sued the Superior Court, alleging that the plan to close courtrooms assigned to handle evictions discriminates against the disabled.

    California’s budget cuts devastated other public services, including education, welfare and health. But Cantil-Sakauye and other judges are now warning that after years of “rationing justice,” the fiscal troubles of the courts have become a civil-rights problem.

    “People have a civil right, and therefore a constitutional right to have their issues resolved in a fair way,” Cope told MintPress in an interview. “When they can’t get into court to have those issues heard … it’s a violation of those rights.”


    “Day of reckoning”

    Brown’s proposed budget would return about $6 million in court funding to Riverside County. But the county, which is expected to be the second most populous in California by the end of the decade, has lost $20 to $25 million over the past five years, Cope says, resulting in the closure of courthouses in Riverside and Palm Springs.

    The courthouse in Temecula narrowly avoided the ax last year as officials looked for ways to offset a $3 million deficit, while services in Blythe, a remote desert outpost on the Arizona border, were slashed from five to three days a week.

    “Fewer courtrooms and fewer judges means it takes longer to get into court,” Cope noted. “And when you get there, the judge has far less time to hear your case.”

    On the days when the Blythe courthouse is closed, the nearest court services are nearly 100 miles away in Indio.

    “The closing of the Blythe court will create more delays, cause case backlogs to grow, and drastically increase the budgets of all local law enforcement agencies that are already operating on thin budgets,” city officials warned in a letter to the court.

    More than 40 other states have been forced to take similar measures in response to recent budget cuts, according to the National Center for State Courts, with state governments slashing fiscal 2012 court budgets by a cumulative $600 million, or 5 percent. In Alabama, state courts are closed on Fridays to save money, while New York canceled a program to use retired judges to hear cases and reduce a backlog.

    But few state court systems have gone as drastically from riches to rags as California’s.

    Since the state’s budget crisis began in 2008, its courts have lost about 65 percent of their general fund support. Only 1 percent of the fund now goes to California’s judicial branch, according to Cantil-Sakauye.

    “Justice requires a court,” the chief justice told lawmakers last year. “But what we once counted on — that courts would be open, available and ready to dispense prompt justice — no longer exists in California.”

    In a recent survey of all but 10 California counties, a committee of presiding judges reported that window services in Sacramento have been slashed by more than 75 percent, causing fights between people waiting in lines, and getting a trial in a traffic case in San Diego requires at least a five-month wait.

    The waiting time for mediation in child custody disputes has risen in at least 19 counties, with parents in Stanislaus County having to wait up to 17 weeks, the report said. Some counties have eliminated hearings in small claims disputes and 11 counties told the committee they are no longer able to process domestic violence restraining orders the same day they are filed.

    Announcing a further round of $56 million in cuts last year in Los Angeles County to offset a $195 million budget shortfall, Presiding Judge David Wesley said the “day of reckoning” had arrived for the court system. Eight courthouses were closed completely as a result of the cuts, and 177 court employees lost their jobs. Earlier cuts reduced annual spending by $110 million.

    “This is our last-ditch effort to save access to justice in Los Angeles County,” Wesley lamented. “The result will be reduced services, long lines and travel distances that may well deter people from seeking and getting the justice they deserve.”


    Uncertain future

    Even before Wesley made those comments, the fiscal gloom over California had begun to lift. The state’s legislative analyst has described the economic outlook for 2014-15 as “even more promising than we projected one year ago” and predicted that the state will end the year with a $5.6 billion reserve.

    Brown’s proposed $155-billion budget for 2014-15 seeks to undo some of the damage from the cuts, allocating $815 million for overdue maintenance of parks, schools, roads and other public facilities, expanding health care, and proposing new funding for schools, universities, environmental initiatives and programs for California’s poor.

    But the governor has also cautioned that “by no means, are we out of the wilderness,” and the judicial branch would get a relatively small, $3.3 billion piece of the budgetary pie, with an additional $100 million from the general fund to support trial court operations and $5 million to support the judiciary.

    “[L]ike the rest of state government these costs must be managed,” the budget blueprint noted.

    Cantil-Sakauye wasn’t too thrilled about the proposal, warning at a news conference last month that it would probably trigger more courthouse closures and layoffs. According to the legislative analyst, much of the proposed increase for the courts would be swallowed up by higher pension and benefit costs.

    “We are rationing justice, and it has become more than a fiscal problem,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “It is in my view now a civil rights problem.”

    In her own fiscal blueprint for the next three years, she said the state’s court system desperately needs more judges, courthouses are in need of major repairs, and more money is needed to provide parents and children with lawyers in child dependency cases.

    Cantil-Sakauye’s recommendations have gotten support from leaders in the state Legislature, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. But a spokesman for the Department of Finance has suggested she might not get any more money out of Brown, noting that other state services, including K-14 education, suffered even deeper cuts.

    “We made it a priority to put $105 million more in the budget recognizing that they have increasing employee costs,” the spokesman said.

    As negotiations over the final budget continue, the courts in places like Porterville — where officials say the new Justice Center has been a huge boon to victims of domestic violence who no longer have to travel 36 miles to Visalia to file paperwork — face an uncertain future.

    “I don’t think we’ll get back to where it was” before the cuts, Cope told MintPress. “But we need to look at making an investment in the infrastructure of California.”

    Cope hears a lot of complaints from people around the county that “our cases are taking so long we can’t get into court. We will hear a lot more of that if we don’t substantially restore the services.”

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