Cast of Court Players Call Upon California for Critical Funding

4/17/2012 7:13:00 AM, Maria Dinzeo
     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - Budget cuts have left the California justice system "in shambles," judges, lawyers and court employees claimed at the Capitol on Monday, hoping more state aid will keep courtrooms open.

     "We have to have our courts," attorney Theodore Olson testified before a joint Senate committee. "When we cut a dollar out of our justice system, we're cutting a dollar out of our ability to deliver justice to our citizens. In this state and other states, our justice systems are in shambles. The sky is falling. This is not crying wolf."
     Yolo County Superior Court Presiding Judge David Rosenberg told the committee that "Kafka could not dream up this scenario."
     "It's the worst-case scenario for the judicial system," Rosenberg said.
     The California court system, which accounts for just 2.4 percent of the overall state budget, has seen $653 million in cuts over the last four years. Gov. Jerry Brown's 2012-13 budget package includes $125 million in additional cuts to the judiciary if voters reject sales and income tax increases.
     California State Bar President Jon Streeter warned that cuts this year could produce a "frightful" level of court closures.
     "Most of these cuts, 90 percent, the vast majority of them occurred in the trial courts, hitting the operation budget where people interact with the courts everyday," Streeter said.
     Courts up and down the state have already laid off hundreds of workers, with Los Angeles Superior Court, the biggest court in the nation, slated to lay off 300 employees in June. Witnesses told horror stories of closed courtrooms and vast lines of frustrated people, often waiting hours for court services, only to be turned away because of reduced staff and court hours.
     Streeter continued: "The cuts that we're talking about are falling on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. We're going after collateral services, things like our self-help services. In San Francisco, in our civil system, there are no court reporters unless you bring your own. Same situation with interpreters. People who tend to need interpreters are generally those who aren't going to be able to afford to hire them. We're slowly creating a system in which only those of means can afford civil justice."
     Sen. Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, said the judiciary should look at cutting waste, citing a recently terminated statewide computer project called the Court Case Management System.
     The judiciary poured hundreds of millions of dollars, and even diverted money away from court operations, into the system even as judges decried it statewide as a boondoggle.
     "We've had a situation here in California very recently where we had a half-a-billion-dollar computer program that the court system junked as being useless and in some cases unwanted, and so those are the kind of inefficiencies that catch my attention," Harman said. "It seems there would be a great deal of room here to try to figure out how to make our court systems work more efficiently and deliver the court services required."
     During a public comment period following over two hours of witness testimony, Mark Natoli with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees urged legislators to prevent fiascos like CCMS by ensuring that all the money allocated to courts actually go to the courts.
     "Money allocated by this body to the trial court trust fund should stay there," Natoli said. "We don't have the ability to do another statewide project that spends hundreds of millions of dollars from that fund while we are closing courtrooms and laying off courtroom personnel."
     Natoli, who represents court employees in Los Angeles, said the court will be closing 10 percent of its courtrooms over the next three months. "I don't think devastating is too big a word," he said.
     
     Cut to the Bone
     Attorney David Boies identified underfunded courts as the real problem in his testimony.
     "The justice systems' funding did not keep pace with increased demands on our justice system," Boies said. "The cuts have really gone to the bone, they've gone to the skeleton of our justice system. What we have seen in states across the country is courthouses closed. Sometimes a day a week, sometimes a day a month, sometimes an afternoon, sometimes closed entirely. We have seen court personnel laid off. We have seen judges who do not have the resources to deal with complicated cases. We have seen instances in which courts will not be able to give a litigant a copy of the court's opinion unless the litigant brings their own paper because the court system has run out of paper."
     Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, asked Olson and Boies for solutions.
     "You're saying a lot of things I've said for the last few years," said Evans, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The problem when we talk about the judicial system - it's the branch of government that's the most esoteric. But when they need it, they need it. How do we make this real for people?"
     Boies said most people aren't aware of the funding crisis in the court system, as most only interact with the courts once or twice in their entire lives.
     Most "haven't walked in the hallways of the Superior Court in Los Angeles, one of the great courts of this country, and found you can barely wind your way through the people with judges out in the hallways trying to adjudicate domestic-violence cases in the hallways because there's no place in the courtrooms," he said.
     "They don't think about how badly they need the justice system until they need it, and by then it's too late," he added. "As people understand more and more who the victims of a dysfunctional justice system are, they will see that they're just like everybody else."
     Olson called the court "invisible." "They don't drive to court like they drive on the roads," he said.
     Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, asked the attorneys what other states have done to alleviate their courts' financial burdens.
     "The fact is that there aren't any really great rosy pictures to tell you about," Olson answered.
     "The problem is a revenue problem," he added. "You can't make those systems more efficient. You can't serve 38 million Californians on reduced revenue."