Friday, November 20, 2009
McCoy: Backlogged Court System Could Slow Economic Recovery
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
Citing a predicted loss of as many as 1,827 jobs and 182 courtrooms in the next four years, Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Charles “Tim” McCoy advised the LACBA Board of Trustees Wednesday night that the resultant judicial backlog could pose an impediment to the recovery of the economy.
“The practice of law is a valuable contributor to the economy of Los Angeles,” McCoy told the MetNews shortly before taking the podium at the meeting, warning that delays in the judicial system could stall resolution of issues that need to be addressed “to get us past the recession.”
McCoy provided a PowerPoint slideshow illustrating the court’s dire situation, which he said he has been presenting at law firms and government agencies for the past week.
“It’s pretty dismal,” he commented, explaining that the court’s budget for the current fiscal year had deficit of $79.3 million.
“On the assumption that it ain’t gonna get better,” McCoy said the Superior Court was predicting shortfalls of $120 million in the next fiscal year and $140.4 million in the year after that.
“And that’s if the cuts from last year just stay at the same level,” he added.
With the next fiscal year beginning July 1, the court is looking to close 38 courtrooms and lay off 485 employees in the next eight months, McCoy warned. He estimated 53 more courtroom closures and a loss of 1140 employees in the next fiscal year.
The vast majority of the courtrooms affected will be those handling civil matters, which, if divided proportionally among the county’s courthouses, “would cut the real trial setting capacity of the Mosk Courthouse in half,” McCoy said. “And when the paper shuffling and inefficacies set in, it may be worse than half.”
On average, the 47 courtrooms in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse carry a caseload of 451 cases and trials take place within 16.4 days, McCoy said. Those numbers would nearly double if 16 of those courtrooms were to be taken away, he added, emphasizing that the backlog would continue to increase “exponentially.”
McCoy also predicted a “mid-year correction” with more budget cuts coming in January, in addition to cuts in the coming years.
“There’s no running away from that,” McCoy insisted.
As for solutions, McCoy said one possibility would be lobbying to insulate the judicial branch from further cuts. “This is not the DMV,” he said. “This is one area of government that deserved special consideration.”
But while commenting that “I firmly believe that,” McCoy said he doubted the argument would be successful.
He indicated that another solution would be to raise revenue, “but you’re going to have to talk the Legislature into effectively raising taxes,” he continued. “Just run the odds.”
McCoy vowed to advocate “tirelessly” in favor of both, although he opined that each proposal was “a Hail Mary” and “shouldn’t be the game plan.”
No Outside Assistance
Rather than looking to outside assistance, McCoy insisted “we gotta figure out ways to help ourselves.” While other jurists statewide and various labor unions have called on the Administrative Office of the Courts to release funds set aside for the development and implementation of a statewide case management system, McCoy argued that this was not an appropriate long-term solution.
“There isn’t a whole lot left” in the AOC’s technology fund, he claimed, emphasizing that those monies, once depleted, would not be replenished, and that “some work needs to continue” to develop technology systems for the courts.
“That leaves us with only one other option internally,” McCoy reasoned, which is to redirect spending on courthouse construction to courthouse operations.
“This has the real potential for getting us across the goal line,” he insisted.
Penalties and Assessments
McCoy said the Los Angeles Superior Court will collect about $73 million a year from penalties and assessments for traffic tickets and criminal convictions, which were increased as part of SB 1407 on Jan. 1 of this year. He said $280 million will be raised annually statewide.
Authored by Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, and signed into law last year, SB 1407 is supposed to provide a $5 billion lease-revenue bond to help the state upgrade courthouses, financed entirely though the increased court fines and fees.
This year, $25 million of the SB 1407 fiscal stream was diverted to court operations, McCoy reported, and he argued that more funds should flow to court operations until the “Great Recession” ends.
McCoy admitted that such a reallocation of resources would force communities to wait to get new court facilities, which could pose a problem since some areas “really want their courthouses,” but he contended that “court operations should be the top priority.”
He admitted that tapping into the SB 1407 revenue was not going to be a complete solution since some layoffs and furloughs would still be necessary to balance the budget for the next two fiscal years, but McCoy said that “it should be part of a comprehensive plan” to keep the courts going.
Additionally, “from a business perspective, it doesn’t make sense to cause a slowdown in the legal branch,” McCoy opined, emphasizing that the practice of law provides “billions” in revenue for the state’s economy.
Remarking that the legal profession is closely entwined with efficient operations of the court, McCoy suggested that “slowing down the legal community will cause damage to the state’s tax revenue” causing “harm far greater than the costs of keeping the courts open.”
In response to questions from the board about the AOC’s performance in addressing the judiciary’s financial woes, McCoy said he was “not in the business of wanting to criticize the AOC,” and reiterated the need to “have a discussion about priorities” and reach a solution that “gets everyone across the goal line.”
In other news, one bright note for local court employees came Tuesday in the form of a letter from McCoy to the staff, a copy of which was provided to the MetNews. The letter informed staff that they will be able to recover one day’s pay per quarter to help ameliorate losses from the monthly unpaid furlough day they were compelled to begin taking in July.
The money comes from the donations of bench officers, who gave an average of 4.5 percent of their annual salaries, roughly equivalent to one day’s pay per month. As constitutional officeholders, judges can not be forced to take less than their statutorily-set salaries of nearly $179,000 per year, but almost the entire Los Angeles Superior Court bench volunteered to give some of their income to court staff.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company