Friday, June 20, 2003
MacLaughlin: Superior Court Might Not Incur Further Cuts
By ROGER M. GRACE, Editor
As things are shaping up, Los Angeles Superior Court Assistant Presiding Judge William A. MacLaughlin said Wednesday night, it appears that cuts in the court’s budget for the next fiscal year will not be crippling, contrary to earlier fears, and that some rehirings of persons recently lopped from the payroll might be possible.
“I think we’re going to be OK,” the judge told a gathering of about 40 lawyers and judges at the monthly meeting of the Italian American Lawyers Assn.
Severe slashes in services had been anticipated since Gov. Gray Davis announced in January that his proposed 2003-2004 budget included whittling $116 million from the allocation to the state’s trial courts, already hit by deep cuts in the 2002-2003 budget amounting to $200 million.
Unexpected Good News
But MacLaughlin—who had been expected to bemoan the court’s financial plight in his talk on the budget crisis—instead told the audience that his message was not one of “gloom and doom.” He said “the good news is that in both houses,” there is now agreement that courts statewide would incur cuts totaling about $85 million, but that a series of fee increases “would make up the difference.”
The speaker noted:
“In Los Angeles County, that means no reduction in services - if this holds together.”
He assured listeners that “the elements are holding fast right now,” but cautioned:
“There’s still a potential of harm and a potential of danger because they haven’t passed the budget.”
The assistant presiding judge recited that there had been projections of the court having to eliminate 60 to 100 civil courts over the next year. “That’s still a possibility,” he said, but remarked that he doesn’t foresee “anything as bad as that.”
MacLaughlin pointed out: “We have 600 fewer employees than we did a year ago.” He commented that if present plans are effectuated, “we will survive” and will be “hiring back” some of the laid off employees.
The jurist disclosed that a pitch was made to legislators that civil litigation is not simply a reflection of society’s litigiousness. He said, by way of example:
“I don’t think it’s litigiousness that causes women who are victims of domestic violence to come to come to us.”
MacLaughlin related that lawmakers were told that civil litigation is often a necessity and can be “life-altering.” They were reminded, he said, that the litigants “are your constituents.”
He recounted that the argument was voiced that “[w]e cannot shut down what we’re doing” consistent with public welfare.
The judge observed:
“The legislators listened—I think to their great credit.”
He singled out for praise state Sen. Joseph Dunn, D-Garden Grove, whom he termed a “good friend” to the courts and a “very dynamic legislator.” Dunn, an attorney, spearheaded the effort to restore finances to the courts, the judge said.
Not mentioned by MacLaughlin was Dunn’s role in averting finance-driven “furloughs” for Los Angeles Superior Court employees on eight court days between April 4, when the plan was announced, and June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Dunn, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee subcommittee that deals with state court funding, brokered an agreement under which the court received the moneys it needed to avoid cancellation of scheduled hearings on the eight specified days or, if a department operated on days when the support staff was absent, the judge having to assume the functions of the clerk.
Funding Shift Derided
MacLaughlin derided the 1997 decision of the Legislature to institute state trial court funding, a measure pushed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George. He pointed to the promise made then that “there would be a consistent level of funding that would allow us to do the best we could,” and said:
“We know, today, that promise is certainly not true in Los Angeles County.”
He contended that if legislators “knew then what we know now, they would never have voted for state funding.”
In response to a question from a member of the audience at the event, held at Casa Italiana at the outskirts of Chinatown, MacLaughlin addressed the decision made by the court administration to cease automatic elevation of court law clerks to research attorneys after two years. A grievance has been submitted to arbitration alleging that this policy breaches a contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 910.
“We made the decision, rightly or wrongly, that we could not afford the luxury of promoting a law clerk to a research attorney position.”
He stressed that the decision was driven by financial necessity and not the judges’ personal wishes, explaining:
“Every one of us would love to promote every law clerk position to a research attorney. It’s strictly a financial issue.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company