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By Dave Roberts
“A sense of confidence in the courts is essential to maintain the fabric of ordered liberty for a free people. And three things could destroy that confidence and do incalculable damage to society: that people come to believe that inefficiency and delay will drain even a just judgment of its value; that people who have long been exploited in the smaller transactions of daily life come to believe that courts cannot vindicate their legal rights from fraud and over-reaching; that people come to believe the law — in the larger sense — cannot fulfill its primary function to protect them and their families in their homes, at their work and on the public streets.”
– Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger
California’s “fabric of ordered liberty” is being torn to shreds by the state’s latest round of budget cuts to the judiciary. In the past four years the judicial branch has suffered $653 million in cuts — a nearly 32 percent reduction in general fundsupport — $606 million of it taken from the trial courts alone. The current state budget siphons an additional $544 million from the judiciary.
The cuts “have a serious impact on the ability of the courts to provide timely due process in California,” said California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye at a Judicial Council meeting in San Francisco on Friday.
Cantil-Sakauye invited William Robinson, president of the American Bar Association, to discuss the budgetary impacts.
“When I read the headlines from Sacramento, San Francisco and other communities around the state, like so many other Americans, I am stunned,” said Robinson. “There is really no time to fret about the truly devastating effects of a billion dollars in cuts to our courts. Who could ever have envisioned that in our lifetime the courts would be experiencing this?”
California is not alone in its judicial devastation; 42 states cut funding to their judiciaries last year, according to Robinson. His home state of Kentucky has cut judicial funding by 45 percent since 2009.
“In times of financial crisis our courts actually face more demand, more pressure for delivering justice,” he said. “And yet the money shrinks and shrinks and shrinks. But our judiciary is a co-equal branch of government and deserves to be funded as such. The courts are the linchpin of our constitutional democracy. No one would seriously consider for budgetary reasons closing a firehouse or a police station or a hospital emergency room one day a week — it’s unthinkable. But our courts are the emergency room of democracy. That’s where the triage for constitutional rights is administered and decided upon case after case after case.”
But instead of performing triage for constitutional rights, the courts are performing triage on themselves as they deal with the fiscal hemorrhaging.
- Los Angeles County has mandated unpaid days off, known as furloughs, and has laid off 329 employees and 574 positions are vacant.
- San Francisco has instituted furloughs, laid off 78 and has a 29 percent vacancy rate. The lines and wait times for service are longer and backlogs are growing.
- Alameda County, where Oakland has one of the highest crime rates in the country, has instituted furloughs, laid off 97, eliminated services at two courts and reduced hours at another court.
- Contra Costa County has permanently shut down a criminal courtroom, closes the family and civil courtroom when the judge is on vacation or out of town and may shut it down altogether. In addition to furloughs, 120 positions have been eliminated, there is a 27 percent vacancy rate and self-help legal services may be cut in half.
- Kern County has instituted furloughs, has a 9.6 vacancy rate and the Bakersfield family law court is so busy that by 10 a.m. the appointments are filled up for the rest of the day.
- Mendocino County has imposed furloughs, laid off 21 percent of staff and permanently closed its Willits court, forcing residents to travel to the Ukiah courthouse.
- Mono County has a 33 percent vacancy rate, resulting in delays in processing filings and citations, has reduced customer service and is experiencing low morale from the overworked staff.
One of the hardest hit is San Joaquin County, home of bankrupt Stockton with a crime rate not far behind Oakland’s. It has instituted furloughs, laid off 45 and has 91 vacant positions, representing 26 percent of its staff. Mandatory psychiatric evaluations have been cut in half for most criminal cases, a significant number of small claims hearings have been eliminated due to insufficient staff, court reporters have been eliminated unless required by statute, and they still use typewriters to process juvenile delinquency cases.
Jennifer McMahan, a research attorney in San Joaquin County Superior Court, described in a letter to the Judicial Council just how sorry a state the courthouse is in, noting that she started work there in an area known as “the dump” because it was literally filled with mounds of trash.
“Every corner you turn in our courthouse has something wrong: duct tape holding the carpet together, roaches taking over the bathrooms and hallways, mini blinds falling on judges in their chambers,” wrote McMahan. “My supervisor, a woman who has been a professional for over 20 years and worked for the court for well over 10 years, currently works out of a storage closet at the end of a public hallway.”
Also victimized by the budget cuts are non-English speakers. One interpreter told the Judicial Council about Grace Ho, a blind Cantonese woman living in a San Jose apartment infested with bedbugs, resulting in her throwing away much of her belongings. When she took the landlord to court for restitution, the court did not provide an interpreter. Her friend stepped in to help, but much of the legal proceeding was lost in translation. Teresa Molina said in Spanish (translated by an interpreter) that when she was in court, her 13-year-old daughter had to translate for her because the court did not provide one.
Although judicial fingers of blame for the budget crisis have been pointed at Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature, the judiciary’s own bureaucratic incompetence has resulted in a significant waste of taxpayer dollars. Last year a state audit revealed that the effort to computerize the judicial branch was seven years behind schedule and had a seven-fold cost overrun to $1.9 billion from the originally estimated $260 million. In March the Judicial Council finally pulled the plug on the boondoggle.
The Administrative Office of the Courts, which was responsible for that boondoggle, was blasted in a report in May by a judicial committee. “Many of the AOC’s management functions — including the manner in which it carries out its decisions, plans projects, and exercises fiscal options — are flawed, lack transparency, and require a major revision,” the report states.
The AOC’s staff metastasized from fewer than 300 in 1992 to more than 1,100 in 2010. In the process, it became top-heavy, unwieldy and developed a culture of control rather than of service. According to the report, “Widespread concerns exist that budget information has not been effectively or accurately communicated, and that obtaining budget information is difficult. It is difficult to understand what is funded or how it is funded. Whether justified or not, there is currently a lack of faith in the fiscal information released by the AOC. It does not appear that management has made accurate and timely financial information a priority.”
The Judicial Council has also been blasted by the Alliance of California Judges. Last year it wrote that the council’s refusal “to authorize additional trial court relief of at least $82 million while preferring a large central bureaucracy, a questionable computer system, and also refusing to briefly delay site acquisition and preliminary work for costly court construction that is nowhere close to breaking ground, demonstrates that the problem at its heart is an issue of governance.”
The accusation that the problem is an issue of governance could be leveled at the executive and legislative branches as well. While California’s Neros fiddle, the state’s residents continue to get burned.
Read original story here.
Tags: audit, bankrupt, budget, constitutional democracy. court, crisis, cuts, furlough, Gov. Jerry Brown, Judicial Council, judiciary, legislature, rights, waste
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