Friday, July 24, 2009
Northern California Judges Revolt Against Court Shutdown Plan
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Several Superior Court judges in three northern California counties have lodged objections with the Administrative Office of the Courts opposing a pending budget proposal to shut down courts statewide one day a month.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne G. Gilliard, who organized a petition effort for her court which she said was joined by 46 out of 55 bench officers, accused the AOC of turning to court closures as “the first easy option” to try and close the estimated $400 million funding gap the state’s judiciary is facing for this fiscal year.
“Generally speaking, judges statewide, and I can speak for the judges of my court, we just want to come to work, and do our j-o-b” she told the MetNews yesterday. “But when [the AOC] voted to shut down trial courts and they called it the centerpiece of their budget solution, we could not abide by that.”
She said that 22 out of 26 judges in the San Mateo Superior Court also signed the petition which she began circulating June 1 and was delivered to the AOC three days later.
Other Viable Options
While she acknowledged a budget cut was “necessary” in light of the state’s “dire financial situation,” Gilliard insisted the AOC proposal, which would shutter courthouses on the third Wednesday of each month, was “absolutely 100 percent wrong,” as there are other viable options available.
Gilliard urged the AOC to cut funding for the continued development and implementation of a statewide computerized case management system, which she said “cost over a billion dollars, and it doesn’t work.”
SEIU Local 721—representing Los Angeles Superior Court’s court reporters, court services assistants, administrative assistants, and court supervisors—and AFSCME Local 575—which represents the Los Angeles court’s clerks and paralegals—have also called on the AOC to divert funding from the program to the courts.
But while Gilliard advocated for jettisoning the entire system, Sacramento Superior Court Presiding Judge James M. Mize suggested a delay in deploying the next version of the CCMS system instead.
Mize conceded that the program “has its bugs,” but that the court “can’t afford to scuttle it right now,” explaining that installing a replacement program would cost an estimated $3 million.
“Everyone is against court closures, the question is what are the other choices, and none of the other choices are good either, because everything that one does affects access to justice,” Mize lamented. “Things are never as simple as they would appear.”
September Closures Likely
Philip Carrizosa, a spokesperson for the AOC, said that if the proposed budget legislation is approved, mandatory court closures are likely to begin in September.
Gilliard expressed concern that the legislation “is proposing to shut everybody down,” so that every courthouse will be completely dark, even though she claimed 20 counties have the money and resources to stay open.
In its present form, Carrizosa said, the legislation “does provide for the provision of certain levels of service,” such as the availability of a judicial officer for emergency matters and warrants, but the manner in which the legislation will be implemented has not yet been determined.
“Various options are under consideration,” he said, adding that the issue will be addressed by the Judicial Council at a public meeting Wednesday.
AOC Employee Furlogh
As for a report in the Grass Valley Union that six Nevada County Superior Court judges had sent a letter to the AOC authored by Presiding Judge Sean P. Dowling accusing the AOC of continuing to hire staff while courts are furloughing and laying off employees, Carrizosa emphasized that the AOC has implemented a mandatory monthly furlough for all employees as well as a hiring freeze.
He maintained that “court closures have always been considered to be a last resort and that we have been trying to do everything possible short of that to meet the budget deficit,” adding that “these are difficult times for everyone in state government, including the judicial branch, and we are doing our best to share in the pain while still providing the public with the services to which they are entitled.”
Still, Gilliard asserted that court closures were not the answer to the state’s budget crisis. “Not even during the Great Depression can you find an instance where any state shut down its court system,” she said, insisting “that’s just irresponsible.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company