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California Courts Face Cash Crunch


SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The nation’s largest state-court system has clogged up. Gilberto and Jessica Salcedo are experiencing that firsthand.

The couple lined up at 9 a.m. at a family-relations courthouse here earlier this month to file paperwork for their pending divorce. But after waiting all day, the pair hadn’t reached the front of the line by the 4 p.m. closing time, and were told they would have to come back the next day.

“Another day here doing nothing, just waiting,” said Mr. Salcedo, 26 years old.

The Salcedos’ delay underlined the fallout of three years of budget cuts to California’s state-court system, which has nearly 1,700 judges and more than 10 million filings annually.

In Los Angeles County Superior Court, where officials laid off 329 people last year from a staff that numbered roughly 5,400, it now takes eight months to fight a traffic ticket, up from three months a few years ago, court administrators said. In San Diego, child-custody matters that once took about a month to finalize now take a full year. In Sacramento, lines for civil services are so long that people bring lawn chairs.

Things are likely to get worse. In July, California’s latest budget included $350 million of cuts to the judicial branch’s $3.5 billion budget. Since 2009, funding from the state’s general fund for the court system has fallen by more than 30%, according to the judicial branch.

Some state-court judges who are part of a group called the Alliance of California Judges have blamed the Administrative Office of the Courts, an entity tasked with managing the courts and their funding. The judges claim the state office is bloated and should face more cuts, with savings given to trial courts. A spokesman for the office said it is already undergoing deep cuts.

Drew Soderborg, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said the courts have made matters worse by addressing previous cuts with onetime solutions—such as transferring money from a separate construction fund to deal with shortfalls—instead of increasing long-term efficiency. A report issued by the office suggests the court system could save several hundred million dollars if it implemented measures such as contracting out interpreting services; requiring competitive bidding for court security; and replacing court reporters with electronic equipment.

Ron Overholt, chief deputy director of the AOC, said the courts have taken some of the legislative analyst’s advice. He noted that all had already “taken whacks,” and that includes long-term actions such as staff layoffs.

“There have been one-time solutions to try to try ride out the recession—that’s how we’ve dealt with recessions in the past—but this is deeper and badder than any that we’ve had,” Mr. Overholt said. “But I think courts have done a good job of operationalizing their reduced budgets.”

While many state-court systems face budget cuts, California’s is among the hardest hit. New York courts, which have more than 1,100 judges, took a 6% cut this year, leading to layoffs and reduced hours, said Lawrence Marks, administrative director of the state’s Office of Court Administration. The system took no cuts the previous two years, he said.

Unlike some states where trial courts are locally funded, California’s state government directly funds each of its 58 county superior courts. Individual courts, however, remain in charge of their own finances and management, said Greg Hurley, an analyst for the National Center for State Courts, a Virginia-based nonprofit group that studies and provides research to state courts. Because of this, each county has dealt with budget reductions differently—and some are faring worse.

In San Joaquin County, east of San Francisco, at least one branch of the court will be shut and judges will hear far fewer small-claims cases, according to the presiding superior-court judge, Robin Appel. San Francisco Superior Court plans to lay off 40% of its work force, and 25 of 63 courtrooms will close Oct. 3. The Civil Division “will effectively be out of business,” said San Francisco Superior Court presiding judge Katherine Feinstein; 14 of 17 civil-trial departments will close this year.

“California has already been cut back to the bone, so another cut on that will definitely be felt by users of the court system,” said Greg Hurley, an analyst with the NCSC.

Diana Leonida, a 33-year-old court staff attorney at San Francisco Superior Court’s Unified Family Court, got her pink slip last month. “I’m on borrowed time,” she said recently while helping a man deal with child-custody issues. “So I’m doing all this while I’m thinking, ‘What’s my next job going to be?'”

The impact of the cuts is likely to be felt deepest by low- and middle-income individuals, legal experts said, noting that bigger companies and the wealthy may have the resources to commission private arbitration and mediation services.

“It’s the people that depend on a public-court system that are getting the shaft,” said Gerald Uelmen, a law professor at Santa Clara University.