Budget crisis puts LA court system at risk

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A woman stands in the doorway of a courtroom closed due to budget cuts and layoffs, at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.

An unprecedented financial crisis afflicting the nation's largest court system is in the hands of the policy making California Judicial Council, with Los Angeles court officials awaiting its decision on their plea for an infusion of cash.

The Los Angeles court system has already closed 17 courtrooms and another 50 will be shut down come September unless something is done to find more money. The closures have disrupted everything from divorce and custody proceedings to traffic ticket disputes.

The judicial council scheduled a meeting Friday to deal with the request from presiding Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy Jr. to divert $47 million in funds from the courthouse construction budget to help stave off more courtroom closings and staff layoffs.

McCoy predicts chaos and a logjam of civil and family law cases if additional funds are not found.

He said the Los Angeles court's budgetary shortfall is $133 million which will be permanent each year unless there is an influx of funds from somewhere.

The Los Angeles system has already laid off 329 workers - about 6 percent of its 5,400-person work force. About 500 more jobs are at risk later this year. McCoy raised the prospect of a cumulative cut of 1,800 people from the 5,400-member work force over two and a half years.

With resulting cutbacks in services, he said, "confidence in the courts would be lost."

"It's unprecedented," said McCoy. "Even during the Great Depression we did not close down court operations. We kept the courts open."

The crisis results from the financially troubled state's decision to slash $393 million from state trial courts in the budget this year. The state also has been closing all California courthouses on the third Wednesday of every month, with employees unpaid for those days.

More than 85 per cent of state judges also agreed to forgo their salaries for the so-called furlough days. But the savings on salary have not been enough to fill the budget gap.

What has emerged is a hobbled court system that is struggling to serve the public.

Custody hearings, divorce proceedings, small-claims disputes, juvenile dependency matters and civil lawsuits have been delayed amid the courtroom shutdowns in Los Angeles. Drivers who choose to fight traffic tickets now have to wait up to nine months to get a trial started.

Complex civil lawsuits involving business affairs could be stalled as long as four years, McCoy said, with a ripple effect in the business community.

"On any given day, 100,000 people go in and out of our courthouses," said Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy Jr., who presides over the Los Angeles system. "That's a Rose Bowl full of people."

Other courts statewide are suffering as well. San Francisco has plans to lay off 122 court employees - 21 percent of the staff - by mid-May unless a solution is found to its budget crisis. Presiding Judge James J. McBride said his court has spent nearly all of its $9 million reserve and instituted a hiring and travel freeze in an effort to avoid layoffs.

He has said the legislature must recognize that "The 58 (state) trial courts, including ours, simply cannot sustain this level of fiscal damage."

Communities around the country have had to deal with various levels of cutbacks to government services and courts, but California's situation is especially dire.

The California Supreme Court closed its satellite office in downtown Los Angeles to reduce its spending.

Only the criminal courts are immune from the cuts out of concern for public safety.

In a report, the Administrative Office of the Courts, an arm of the Judicial Council, called McCoy "overly pessimistic" about the future. Its chief financial officer, Stephen Nash, opposes McCoy's stopgap proposal to divert the $47 million in construction funds.

Nash says there are other ways to avert disaster but is vague on what they may be.

"We think you need to be more creative than what Los Angeles is offering," he said. "I'm saying we are going to be able to craft a solution.... "We're going to be looking under every rock at every fund we have. Four months from now, there will be offsets identified."

Meanwhile, citizens who aren't aware of the Wednesday furloughs are showing up on those days only to find the courts are closed. Those with traffic matters are being diverted to automated call centers, but they can't talk to a person because the 20-member traffic call staff was laid off.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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