Monday, March 8, 2004
Proposed State Budget Places Local Courts at Risk, Legislators Told
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Proposals in the governor’s state budget to cut trial court funding by $37 million would erode public access and threaten core functions, witnesses told three state legislators at a downtown Los Angeles hearing Friday.
“All that we have created with your help, I think, is at risk,” Los Angeles Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge William A. MacLaughlin told a panel chaired by state Sen. Joseph A. Dunn, D-Garden Grove.
MacLaughlin was one of a parade of judges, court employees, and attorneys at the nearly four-hour hearing who predicted dire consequences if more funding for the state’s courts is not provided.
“I think we’ve reached a critical point,” MacLaughlin said, noting that the local Superior Court has lost, through layoff or attrition, 600 employees in the last 18 months. It now has about 5,200 workers, not counting judges, he said.
“Further substantial cuts could jeopardize all of our non-mandated services” and would also affect the court’s “ability to provide our core functions,” the assistant presiding judge declared.
The court has closed 29 courtrooms, MacLaughlin said, adding that every $1 million in the court budget provides about 20 jobs and funds 3 1/3 courtrooms.
The governor’s budget could require the local Superior Court to reduce expenditures by as much as $10 million, he said. He noted that the state’s trial courts take up less than 2.7 percent of the state’s budget.
The Los Angeles hearing was the second of four planned by Dunn, who chairs the Senate Budget Subcommittee which oversees judicial branch funding, and Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Norwalk, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. The first took place last month in San Diego and additional hearings are scheduled to be held on Friday in Fresno, March 18 in the Bay Area, and in Orange County in April, Dunn said.
Also attending part of Friday’s hearing was Sen. Shiela Kuehl, D-Los Angeles.
Dunn, who last year along with Sen. Richard Ackerman, R-Tustin, spearheaded a compromise that avoided more severe cuts in court funding, expressed sympathy for the plight of the courts.
“The courts have already taken the brunt of very significant cuts in the past two years,” Dunn commented, adding that the cuts in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget are “beyond what is necessary.”
But Kuehl warned that court officials may face an uphill battle in winning additional funding for 2004-2005, and suggested that touting the value of specialized programs for the disadvantaged—as many witnesses did—may not be their best tactic.
“The tsunami of problems that were promised us in past years do not seem to have happened,” Kuehl noted, adding that advocates for more court funding might be better advised to concentrate on “what’s gone sour in the past couple of years.”
Though Kuehl left the hearing soon after making that comment, several subsequent witnesses followed her advice.
South District Supervising Judge Bradford L. Andrews said needed maintenance on court buildings has been deferred for lack of funds. An investment of more than $700 million would be required just to complete seismic retrofitting of local courthouses so that ownership of them could be transferred to the state as contemplated when the state assumed responsibility for court funding, Andrews said.
A $12 million retrofit planned for the Long Beach courthouse will only upgrade it to the point at which it would not collapse, but could be evacuated, in an earthquake of moderate intensity, Andrews reported. Such a temblor would still likely leave the building unfit for occupancy and the expenditure would not bring it up to the standards required for transferring ownership to the state, the supervising judge said.
Escutia said it may take a major turnaround in the state’s economy before many needed renovations can be accomplished.
“Frankly, I don’t see the money coming from a money tree,” she told Andrews.
Escutia urged court officials to pursue a “public-private partnership” under which, Andrews said, a Long Beach developer would pay the cost of constructing a new courthouse, purchase the existing building, and lease the new facility back to the county.
Judge Peter D. Lichtman, who hears cases in the complex litigation program at the Central Civil West courthouse, and Arnella Sims, president of the Los Angeles County Court Reporters Association, noted that while the local courts have saved millions of dollars by adopting a “flexible Fridays” program under which employees are encouraged to take one Friday a month off without pay, the program has sharply limited court productivity on Fridays and created a scheduling headache for managers attempting to provide coverage for the absent workers.
“The workload on Fridays doesn’t go away, it just gets pushed off to other days,” Sims declared.
Monrovia Police Chief Roger Johnson complained that the closure of prisoner lockups at the Monrovia courthouse forced him to purchase a special vehicle for transporting arrestees to court in Alhambra. His officers now must also spend additional time traveling to the Alhambra hearings, he said.
Former Attorney General John Van de Kamp, a member of the State Bar Board of Governors who introduced himself as an “itinerant attorney,” told Dunn that the funding crisis is jeopardizing the gains made under “fast track” legislation Van de Kamp help to write which allowed the courts to resolve the up to five-year civil case backlogs of the 1980s.
That legislation brought about a “remarkable sea change” in the courts, Van de Kamp said, but he warned that change could be reversed if stable court funding cannot be achieved.
“We are going to be snowballing the problem,” Van de Kamp declared.
Dunn said he and his colleagues on the Budget Committee will spend the next 2 Ω months in hearings on the state budget before the governor submits a revision of it in May. Though the budget is supposed to be adopted by the end of June, that deadline has rarely been met, he noted.
“Let’s hope we don’t extend into September as we did last year,” Dunn remarked.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company