LOS ANGELES (CN) - The largest trial court system in the nation is shutting courtrooms and laying off staff in big waves as the result of a massive shortfall in its $800 million budget. Fifty courtrooms are expected to close and roughly 1,000 court workers -- 20 percent of the sprawling court system's staff -- are scheduled to be laid off by the end of the year.
"What is happening today is a harbinger of what is to come," said Los Angeles County's Presiding Judge Tim McCoy. "And it will bring a very real erosion of justice."
Courthouses up and down California are being closed as the economic slowdown and consequent tax shortfall have affected most regions of the state from the bucolic north to the densely populated south.
But the size of the court system and the depth of red ink in Los Angeles make its courts the ones that feel the greatest pain. In addition, the Los Angeles area is predominantly blue collar in its population and hosts millions of immigrants from all over the world.
At Metropolitan Court just south of downtown, for example, people can easily wait two hours simply to get through security monitors and into the building. On a typical morning earlier this month, "metro court" had recorded 5,400 people paying tickets and handling other matters, said Clerk John Clarke. That was before noon.
By the end of the day, he said, there were still 300 people waiting in the lobby and another 400 outside who had not been able to get inside.
While more affluent counties in Southern California toss out technical solutions, such as going online to deal with court matters, huge swaths of population in Los Angeles do not have computers and do not have bank accounts, said Clarke. They pay with cash and they want a receipt.
"It will get worse," said Clarke. "Absolutely."
Assistant Presiding Judge Lee Edmon, who in January will be the first woman to take over leadership of the court, said the staff cuts and courtroom closures will inevitably lead to slow downs for trials, a frequent measure of courthouse health. As a practicing lawyer years ago, she said, she would wait five years for a trial date.
The delay is currently a manageable 16 months to get to trial in Los Angeles County, said Edmon. The great fear is that the waiting time that has been shortened so substantially during the intervening years will now begin to stretch back in the other direction towards longer and longer delays.
The court's budget shortfall this year is about $80 million, roughly ten percent of its yearly budget, but the deficit is projected to grow over the next three years, until 1800 people are laid off and 180 courtrooms and nine courthouses are closed.
One solution is to redirect money currently slated for new courthouse construction and equipment -- including $2 billion for new computers systems. McCoy, the presiding judge, said that money could and should be directed to keep the courthouses running, until the economy picks up.
That solution requires convincing state legislators and the principal court administrative body, the Judicial Council, to change the path of those funds.
But statewide politics, and particularly union politics, enter into the decision. The construction and labor unions want the construction money to stay right where it is, said one courthouse official, while the courthouse employees' union wants the money spent to prevent further layoffs.
In years past, when the state was flush with tax money, the judges had pushed for construction of new courthouses and an enormous investment in computer systems. "What has changed," said McCoy, "is the tsunami that hit us in the last couple years."