Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Eleven San Francisco Hearing Officers, Commissioners Laid Off
Presiding Judge Says Justice System ‘Collapsing’ Due to Budget Cuts
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
San Francisco Superior Court officials yesterday reported that 11 of the court’s 12 commissioners were among the 200 employees given lay-off notices as part of a reorganization plan to address the $350 million budget cut that lawmakers made to the branch.
Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein said the Legislature’s blow to the judiciary’s funding is expected to leave the court with a $13.75 million deficit for this fiscal year, and “no alternative other than to slash judicial services, layoff our skilled, hard-working employees, and compromise the timely delivery of civil justice to the citizens of this county.”
Feinstein said the court “will prioritize criminal, juvenile, and other matters that must, by law, be adjudicated within time limits,” but cautioned, “justice will neither be swift nor accessible” in other areas.
She explained that the layoffs, slated to go into effect Sept. 30, will result in “extraordinarily long delays” for civil cases without statutory preferences, predicting the passage of nearly five years for trials, and 18 months to finalize divorces.
The jurist also warned of months-long waits to obtain criminal and civil records, reduced hours in all clerks’ offices, reduction in self-help services for litigants, and “hours of standing in line” for persons coming to pay a traffic ticket.
“After we downsize this court in the next 60 days, we will be a shell of what we once were,” Feinstein said, with over 40 percent of its staff gone. “Many loyal and talented commissioners will be walking out the courthouse door through no fault of their own” in 60 days, she said, leaving judges—who are constitutional officers and therefore cannot be laid off—to cover their traffic, criminal, juvenile and probate assignments.
Come Oct. 3, the court is slated to shutter 25 courtrooms indefinitely, including 12 Civil Trial Departments, both of its Complex Litigation Departments, one Law & Motion/Discovery Department, one Case Management Department, one Juvenile Dependency Department, and one Juvenile Traffic Department.
Feinstein also noted the possibility of additional staff cuts and court closures in January if a projected $4 billion in additional state revenue does not materialize.
Employees who are laid off are being placed on a re-employment list for up to five years, court officials said. If the court is able to hire employees during the five-year period, these employees would be brought back in order of seniority.
The California Judges Association has also said it will seek to obtain new positions for laid-off San Francisco Superior Court commissioners, either through judicial appointments or commissioner appointments in other counties.
Branch leaders are slated to meet Friday to determine how the $350 million cut to the judiciary’s budget should be allocated among branch entities.
The Judicial Council’s Trial Court Budget Working Group and the appellate court leadership last Wednesday voted to recommend a cut in funding for the trial courts by 6.7 percent, a 9.7 percent cut for the California Supreme Court and Court of Appeal, and a 12 percent reduction for the Judicial Council and Administrative Office of the Courts. The committees also proposed that these cuts increase to 15.2 percent across the board next year.
How the Los Angeles Superior Court will address a cut to its funding has not yet been decided, but Presiding Judge Lee Edmon has said “[a]ll options are on the table at this point.”
Court officials in San Joaquin have said they are poised to close a courthouse in Tracy, shutter two courtrooms in Lodi, and stop hearing small claims matters, starting in October.
Both the Alliance of California Judges and CJA have spoken out against cuts to trial court operations.
CJA Officials Respond
CJA President-Elect David Rubin, at last Wednesday’s budget meeting, advocated for cuts “to be minimal, if any are made at all” to the trial and appellate courts, and suggested the parts of the branch “that are not engaged in real public interaction,” such as management and administration, “take the brunt of the cuts.”
Alliance directors have contended the judiciary’s administrative arm should have its budget slashed in half, and that it should scuttle its $1.9 billion case management system project.
CJA’s current president, however, has indicated he thinks this proposal goes too far. San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Keith Davis did not return a call seeking comment yesterday, but he told the San Jose Mercury News he thought the Alliance’s suggestion “doesn’t have a lot of support along the broad base of the judiciary.”
Alliance director Daniel Goldstein disputed Davis’ claim yesterday, suggesting the results of a CJA member survey in March indicated otherwise. The CJA reported 877 members—34 percent of a total of 2,564—responded to the survey, and 62 percent of them were generally or somewhat dissatisfied with the Judicial Council’s oversight of the AOC, while 79 percent reported some level of dissatisfaction were the council’s oversight of the California Case Management System project.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company