Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Superior Court Lays Off 329 Employees, Closes 16 Courtrooms
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
For 329 Los Angeles Superior Court employees, yesterday was their last day at work, marking the first of three planned waves of layoffs and the shuttering of 16 courtrooms.
Presiding Judge Charles W. McCoy said it was “a dark day for justice” at a press conference yesterday morning held in one of the 10 courtrooms at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse going dark as a result of the state’s ongoing financial crisis.
Of the courtrooms affected at the Mosk courthouse, two carried small claims caseloads, one did limited civil cases, and seven handled general civil litigation, according to data released by the court. One civil courtroom in Malibu and one in West Los Angeles were also closed.
The Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center, and the Hollywood and San Fernando courthouses each lost a courtroom handling criminal matters, and the Santa Monica courthouse closed a family law courtroom.
McCoy said the judges who had presided in those courtrooms have been reassigned to fill existing vacancies, but acknowledged that “at some point that capacity will run out” and the court would “have to find ways to use our judges productively.”
He proposed assigning more judges to the court’s case settlement program to try and lessen the number of trials, insisting that judges may “have to shift their duties” but “are never going to be superfluous.”
Up to 50 more courtrooms may be closed by September, when an additional 500 employees are expected to be released, McCoy said.
In the next two years, unless the court is able to secure more funding, the court would have to curtail its workforce by 34 percent, representing a loss of 1,800 jobs, and close 180 courtrooms, he added.
With the resultant loss of trial capacity, a spokesperson for the court said it was “possible” the court may create “a more regional situation” where the departments handling certain substantive areas of law would be consolidated into fewer locations.
Court Executive Officer John A. Clarke said no decision had been made as to which courtrooms and courthouses will be affected by future closures.
Clerical Staff Only
Commissioners and referees were spared from this round of cuts, which mostly impacted clerical staff. A total of 172 court services assistant and 103 clerical assistant positions were eliminated, according to the court’s data. A court spokesperson said that there were no plans at present to include subordinate judicial officers in the later rounds of layoffs.
The employees affected by the initial staff reduction will be on administrative leave for the next two weeks and officially terminated April 1, McCoy said.
He explained that the cuts were made on the basis of seniority, and that negotiations with the three unions who represent the vast majority of the court’s 5,400 employees were “ongoing” and “the full range of possibilities are being discussed” for alternatives to further layoffs.
McCoy emphasized that the court has a budget of about $800 million, about 80 percent of which goes to employee salaries and benefits, and a structural deficit of about $130 million. He also noted that Los Angeles County was not alone in turning to layoffs and courtroom closures in attempts to balance their budget.
He warned that the consequences of the courtroom closures and layoffs “will be felt everywhere,” with longer lines, growing backlogs, and delays in processing, “proving the axiom that justice delayed is indeed justice denied.”
The effects of yesterday’s layoffs also will curtail services to the public, including the loss of the operator service at the traffic telephone Call Center, a reduction in traffic night court sessions, an increased turn-around time for archive retrieval and reproduction, closure of the fifth-floor clerk’s office at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center and termination of financial support for the Court-Appointed Special Advocates program, a court spokesperson said.
McCoy, however, insisted that “these losses do not need to happen” and reiterated the call he has made on the Legislature and the Judicial Council to partially reallocate the $5 billion dedicated for courthouse construction and $2 billion allocated for development of a statewide case management system.
“We need to keep our existing courts open and operating, and only after that, if money remains to build new courthouses and buy new computers, so be it.”
The Administrative Office of the Courts has defended its decision to proceed with the court construction and renovation projected financed by Senate Bill 1407, a lease-revenue bond measure signed into law in 2008, claiming that delaying the 41 projects slated to receive that money would impair the state’s ability to create 105,000 jobs and cost the state an estimated $300 million in lost buying power for each year of delay.
The organization has also taken the position that continued work on its case management system is necessary to prevent a complete loss of its seven-year investment in the technology.
A protest organized by SEIU 721 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represent court reporters, clerks, phone operators and children’s attorneys who work for the court, is scheduled to take place this afternoon, beginning at the Mosk courthouse and ending at the Ronald Regan State Building. The event will call on the Legislature to restore funding for the judiciary.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company