LA County judge warns more courts will close

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Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

A view of the defendant's table in a courtroom closed due to budget cuts and layoffs, at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on March 16, 2009. Beset by an unprecedented budget crisis, the LA Superior Court, the largest trial court system in the US, laid off 329 employees and announced the closure of 17 courtrooms, with more of both expected in the future.

The governing body for California courts Friday rejected a proposal to keep existing Los Angeles courtrooms open by diverting money from courtroom construction.

The Superior Court of Los Angeles is the nation’s largest trial court system.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Charles W. McCoy Jr. says budget cuts in Sacramento have shrunk that system this year. He’s had to shut 17 courtrooms and lay off 300 employees. McCoy says that’s delayed important decisions in divorce cases.

"To maintain peace in a family that’s breaking up, they need to get decisions on who has custody—who has legal custody or whether it’s joint custody," he said.

McCoy says families also need child support orders.

"Because one spouse or the other may not be able to support themselves and the children that the have custody of—without a child support order that is active and enforced so that money is flowing," he said.

McCoy says the budget cuts have also delayed the resolution of business disputes. If similar delays continue, McCoy says, they could cost the state billions of dollars in lost revenue.

That’s why he wants to divert $47 million from a fund for state-wide courtroom construction to backfill his budget cut. The legislature would have to approve such a move, and it’s done so before. But the Judicial Council of California – the body that advocates for the courts - voted against the plan.

Stephen Nash, who handles finances for the council, said courts throughout the state need cash right now to keep their doors open. But he says the Judicial Council should look for ways to save money before it raids funds meant to improve the physical safety of courtrooms.

"This essentially becomes cannibalizing our long term resources - for things that will be serving us 50 years from now - for short term solutions," Nash said. "And we do believe there is a need for short term and interim solutions but we think this is the wrong place to be looking for that."

McCoy interprets that as “no” …for now.

"What they’re saying is they don’t want to advocate it right now," McCoy said. "But I say that inevitably they’re going to have to turn to those construction funds and use those construction funds because there’s billions of dollars available."

McCoy says that the pace of justice slows when courtrooms close. In L.A. he predicts a much slower pace by the end of the year. If the court system doesn’t get at least $47 million, McCoy says, he’ll have to shut down another 50 courtrooms and lay off hundreds more workers.

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