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Justice On A Budget In California

Kaitlin Parker |
April 27, 2011 | 8:43 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Among the myriad cuts in Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, California courthouses are set to lose $200 million in attempt to help close the state deficit. No small slash, the cuts would take away 20 percent of the courts’ $1 billion annual budget. 

Compton Courthouse (Kaitlin Parker)
Compton Courthouse (Kaitlin Parker)

The cutbacks could mean courtroom closures, layoffs, furloughs, shortened operating hours, delays in building much needed construction projects and technological updates, or likely, all of the above. Judge Lee S. Edmon, the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, said the courts have “never been so much in a state of uncertainty.”

While courthouses across the state are feeling the squeeze, in L.A. County, one of the most congested court systems in the country, the window that allows access to justice does indeed seem to be closing. And thanks to new rules and courtroom closures, some of the people the most vulnerable to these cuts are the ones that depend the most on access and stability—parents and children.

Fighting to stay open

In a previous attempt to save money, California courthouses closed one extra day per month from September 2009 to June 2010.

Philip Carrizosa, who works in the communications office of the State Administrative Office of the Courts, said they’d do anything to stop the courts from closing again.

“There were a lot of increased frustrations on those days,” Carrizosa said on a phone call from San Francisco, referring to the once-a-month closures. “People would show up not knowing the courts were closed, and the lines would always be even longer than usual the next day the courts opened.”

He explained that people would frequently come to drop off papers, find the courts closed, and leave their documents in newly installed drop-boxes outside the courts. Many times their paperwork would contain minor errors—something a counter clerk could have fixed on the spot. The errors meant people had to make multiple trips back to the courthouse or worse—cases didn’t get filed, restraining orders didn’t get issued.

And even though the monthly closures have stopped, many court employees still have to take mandatory furloughs, Carrizosa included.

One day a month “I stay home and don’t get paid,” he said. “It’s not a happy situation, but if need be, we’ll do it, as long as the courts stay open.”

In addition to a possible 10 percent pay cut, Carrizosa thinks his furlough could go up to two days a month if the budget cuts pass.

Carrizosa is bothered by the prospect of the $200 million cuts, but he thinks the courts will be able to weather them. What he’s more concerned about are taxes--specifically, what will happen if Brown isn’t successful in extending tax increases.

“Without that revenue, we’re likely looking at more cuts, more like $300 million,” he said.

Judge Edmon shares Carrizosa’s concerns about the tax extensions. She said if they don’t go through, the courts, which are already operating on a “shoestring budget,” could be looking at double the cuts.

Money from elsewhere—finding it and losing it

Last year, the courts addressed their budget crisis by transferring funds that had been earmarked for court construction projects and updated computer systems. The move didn’t come without pushback—many courthouses are in desperate need of repair, and the technology used in the current statewide case management system is “old and failing” said Carrizosa.

“Improved systems would allow courts to talk to each other,” he said. Carrizosa pointed out that this is especially important in domestic violence cases where a judge in L.A. County may see a clean file when actually a person has several complaints against him or her in Orange County.

Still, he said, delaying development on a case management system was better than having to close courts completely.

L.A. County Superior Court Judge Charles Horan is upset that money was ever taken away from the courts for a new computer system in the first place and doesn’t understand why the Administrative Office continues to support it. Horan is part of a group called the Alliance of California Judges, an organization formed in direct response to the courts’ budget crisis.

“As long as they keep funding CCMS [California Case Management System], they’re going to have a heck of a problem,” Horan said. “It’s a system that’s going to be obsolete by the time it’s rolled out and end up costing the state over $1 million per judge.

A recent audit of the decade-old development project produced scathing results, revealing that in 2004 the cost estimate of the project was $260 million. By 2010 that amount had risen to $1.9 billion.

“Imagine if we had $1.9 billion to give back to the people and the employees,” Horan said. “Instead, we’ve given it all to Deloitte,” the consulting firm hired to design the project.

Making life interesting in L.A.

Even with rearranging funds, L.A. County courts couldn’t escape some tougher measures. In March 2010, then Presiding Judge Charles “Tim” McCoy announced additional cutbacks in the form of laying off 329 employees and closing 17 courtrooms.

Edmon said between the layoffs and lack of rehires, the L.A. courts lost about 500 people last year.

“More than 85 percent of our budget is people,” Edmon said. “There’s not many other ways to cut.”

Edmon said she can’t imagine what the cuts will have to resort to if the budget continues to drop, but cautioned that, “We may have to start looking at the way we do business and investigating some serious structural changes.”

By serious changes, Edmon said she’s talking about things like reducing the number of jurors and even switching some misdemeanor cases from jury to non-jury trials. Another option to help with the long lines could be installing kiosks where people could pay traffic tickets without having to go through security.

She’s also keeping an eye on Brown’s realignment plan, which would move parole hearings and parole discharges, events currently handled by the executive branch, to courthouses. In L.A., that would mean the 50 or so courthouses taking on an extra 86,000 hearings per year.

And people thought lines were long now.

“It would make life interesting, that’s for sure,” Edmon said.

Family law’s “double whammy”

Among those 17 courtrooms that closed in L.A. County last year, several handled family law.

“This is a huge deal,” said Stacy Phillips, a Certified Family Law Specialist and managing partner at Phillips, Lerner & Lauzon LLP, talking about cuts to the courts.

Phillips thinks that there have been “warning bells” about the dim state of L.A. County Courthouses for years.

“[Charles] McCoy predicted courts would be in trouble, and he predicted 2012 would be the worst year yet,” said Phillips, referring to a presentation former L.A. presiding judge gave several years ago.

“Most people are not paying attention to the impact on families and children,” she said.

Phillips said the pressures caused by not being able to get a hearing quickly in L.A. County have led to increased domestic violence and real-world ramifications on children.

She said newly released numbers in regards to the number of cases handled in the county echoed her concern. Family law filings are slightly down, but requests for motions are up 30 percent. This means that the courts aren’t hearing as many new cases, but they’re hearing older cases multiple times. Phillips once represented a father for 12 years, but in all the times they went to court, their visits still only counted as one case.

Phillips believes the numbers will only get worse once the recommendations of the Elkins Task Force are factored in. Beginning in 2011, the Elkins rule means that all family law cases involving temporary or interim orders now require an evidentiary hearing--a “mini-trial.” These matters used to be decided between parties and their counsel outside the courtroom. Because of Elkins, Phillips thinks the next round of numbers will show requests for motions up more than 60 percent.

All these extra hearings combined with courtroom closures mean family law judges are overworked. In 2006, family law cases represented 7 percent of all court filings in California, but 33 percent of the judicial workload—and that number has and will continue to increase. Phillips has had clients who needed an emergency hearing and couldn’t get one. When they do make it to court, judges’ schedules are so packed, they will often simply tell people to come back in another six months.

Plus, lawyers now have to prepare more hearings and are charging their clients to reflect the additional court visits.

And people who can’t afford legal representation may soon be out of luck too. Phillips said the legal self-help center in the downtown courthouse may have to close completely.

Phillips said between the budget cuts and the increased hearings, it’s a “double whammy for family law.” People have to come to a court that offers fewer services, more often.

“If the average person goes to court, and they find out it’s closed, or the clerk’s office shut early that day, they can’t always get back soon,” Phillips said. “People are going to start taking justice into their own hands.”

This report is part of our special series, California in Crisis, which explores the personal, local ramifications of the state budget debacle. Please click here for more.

Reach Kaitlin Parker here.



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