California Courtroom Closures, Court Employees Cut-Back And New Court Fees

Probate in California just got more expensive. Beginning July 10, 2012, there is a new probate fee schedule.

On April 17th, 2012, the following headline and article was posted by the Los Angeles Superior Court:

LOS ANGELES SUPERIOR COURT’S PRESIDING JUDGE ANNOUNCES COURTROOM CLOSURES

The Los Angeles Superior Court today announces plans for the most significant reduction of services in its history. By June 30, 2012, the Court will reduce its staff by nearly 350 workers, close 56 courtrooms, reduce its use of court reporters and eliminate the Informal Juvenile Traffic Courts.

According to Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon, “Staffing reductions due to budget cuts over the past 10 years have forced our court to reduce staffing by 24%, while case filings continue to increase. This has created incredible pressures on our court to keep up with our work. We cannot endure these pressures for much longer.”

In the current year, additional staffing reductions are required to deal with the fact that the state’s budget crisis has resulted in a reduction to the California judicial branch of $652 million. The Court has managed its share of these cuts by spending down year-end fund balances, freezing wages, furloughing court staff, and eliminating staff positions, achieving $70 million in ongoing savings as of last fiscal year.

“This year, the state cuts are forcing us to reduce our spending by an additional $30 million – on top of the $70 million in reductions we have already made,” notes Edmon. “There will be as many as 350 dedicated, skilled court workers who will no longer be serving the residents of Los Angeles County. When we lose those people, we will no longer be able to shield the core work of the court – the courtroom – from the budget crisis.”

The $30 million reduction plan, which will take effect by June 30, 2012, has four components:

First, the Court is closing 56 courtrooms, a move made necessary by the depth and breadth of the reductions.

The courtrooms being impacted include 24 civil, 24 criminal, 3 family, 1 probate, and 4 juvenile delinquency courts. The caseloads of those courtrooms are being distributed among the remaining courtrooms. Judicial officers whose courtrooms are impacted will be reassigned to fill vacancies, to share staff or to handle settlement conferences to resolve cases without trials.

Second, on May 15, 2012, the Los Angeles Superior Court will no longer provide court reporters for civil trials. In addition, after June 18, 2012, court reporters will be available for civil law-and-motion matters on a limited basis. (No changes are being made to the provision of court reporters in criminal, family, probate, delinquency or dependency matters.)

Third, the Court is again making significant reductions to its non-courtroom staff. Having made 329 layoffs and lost another 229 court staff through attrition over the past two years, the Court anticipates making more than 100 additional non-courtroom staff reductions by June 30, 2012. “Our judges and staff have shown incredible dedication and commitment in keeping the court running during these past two years. But these new reductions will not allow it to be business as usual. There will be longer lines at clerk’s windows across the county and slower responses to the public’s needs across the court,” said Edmon.

Fourth, the Court will eliminate its Informal Juvenile Traffic Court program (IJTC). IJTC is an innovative program in which minors who commit low-level offenses are held to account for their actions by the court and by their parents – but outside of the traditional delinquency system. “These courts have allowed us to address tens of thousands of offenses in a more appropriate forum than delinquency court,” said Assistant Presiding Judge David Wesley. “We are losing a crucial element of the juvenile justice system to lack of funding.”

“It saddens me to have to make these layoffs,” notes Presiding Judge Edmon. “These actions are affecting people who have made a commitment to public service, to justice. We have had incredible cooperation of all our staff and our labor representatives through the past few years of these trying economic times. We should be in a position to reward them, not to have to inflict further pain.”

“These extraordinary actions,” says Presiding Judge Edmon, “cut into the core work of the courts. With risks of more reductions on the horizon, we are already rationing justice. The Judicial Council must find fiscal relief for the trial courts – from any and all sources. The public cannot tolerate any further major service reductions.”

Notices to litigants and to attorneys regarding these changes are proceeding. Pursuant to statute and rule of court, relevant notices to attorneys and the public regarding the moving of case types, and changes to filing locations, can be found through the court’s website: go to www.lasuperiorcourt.org, click on “News and Media”, then click on “Notices to Attorneys.” For relevant judicial orders, click on “Court Rules” and look under the “Special Notices” tab.

No cases are being dismissed because of these actions.

Just two months later, the following headline and article was posted by the Los Angeles Superior Court:

LOS ANGELES SUPERIOR COURT ANNOUNCES BUDGET CUTS AFFECTING 431 EMPLOYEES

Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon announces that “Tomorrow 431 court employees will be adversely affected as reductions in state financial support for the California judicial branch force us to cut our budget by $30 million.”

These actions will affect nearly 1 of every 10 employees of LASC, the largest trial court in the nation.

“This is the unfortunate human impact of the need to reduce our spending by $30 million,” said Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon. “We are laying off people who are committed to serving the public. It is a terrible loss both to these dedicated employees and to the public.”

The latest cuts are part of an ongoing series of reductions that began in April of 2010 and that will continue. The reductions made to date already saved $70 million. The current actions will save another $30 million. Despite these cuts, the Court faces future additional shortfalls as more reductions in state support for the trial courts are proposed for the Fiscal Year 2012-13 budget.

As of this writing, the state budget is not yet finished, but the Governor’s May Revision proposes to reduce judicial branch funding by another $544 million, and to eliminate the ability of the courts to use or maintain reserves as bridge funding to delay the impacts of cuts. LASC will likely face additional mandatory reductions of more than $40 million during the next fiscal year.

“Because the California trial courts are state funded, our Court has become a casualty of the state budget crisis,” noted Edmon. “We have blunted the impacts of the cuts through the use of locally held reserves,” said Edmon. “But we cannot do that indefinitely – especially if those reserves are swept, as is being considered in the current budget talks. Our Court is in the midst of a series of painful and wrenching reductions that must ultimately bring services in line with significant reductions in state funding.”

According to Assistant Presiding Judge David Wesley, “There will be more cuts next year, and their impacts will be severe. The current cuts already affect the core work of court – the judge in the courtroom – while significant budget shortfalls remain. Given the significance of our responsibilities to protect public safety and children, the next round of reductions will further limit our ability to hear civil cases.”

Across-the-board cuts will eliminate 341 (corrected) positions in four areas, totaling $30 million in ongoing savings:

• Eliminating courtroom staffing in 56 courtrooms will save $6.8 million, a change that affects courtrooms in civil (24 courtrooms affected), criminal (24), family law (3), probate (1) and juvenile (4). The changes to the affected courtrooms have been underway for the past several weeks; they are already being felt across the county.
• Eliminating the Court’s innovative Informal Juvenile Traffic courts will save $4.8 million and will result in the closure of 11 additional courtrooms.
• Reducing court reporter services will save $10.3 million. These changes began affecting civil courtrooms on May 15, when court-employed reporters were no longer available for civil trials.
• Eliminating 110 management, clerical and administrative positions outside of the courtrooms will save $8.2 million. These impacts will be felt across the Court, from clerk’s windows across the county, to central administrative functions.

Altogether, these cuts will impact 431 court staff:

• 157 people are being laid off,
• 108 people will lose 40% of their salaries when they are moved to a three-day-per-week schedule,
• 86 people will lose between 5% and 40% of their salary when they are reclassified to lower-level positions,
• 80 people are being transferred to new jobs, and typically new locations, because their old jobs have been eliminated.

Notices to affected employees are being hand-delivered tomorrow. Those laid off will be given two weeks’ paid administrative leave, during which time they may attend Court-provided workshops on post-employment benefit issues.

By tomorrow, the LASC will have reduced the number of budgeted positions by 23% since 2002.

“We are in the midst of a fundamental restructuring of the California courts,” notes John A. Clarke, the Executive Officer and Clerk of Court. “But the final outcome is difficult to manage, and impossible to predict, due to the speed and severity of the budget cuts being forced upon us.

“Legislators and the Governor are restructuring how California addresses corrections, public education, and welfare and health services. Our court is swept up in these catastrophic changes,” said Clarke. “The commitment of our judicial officers and staff to preserve access to justice is unwavering, but our ability to follow through on that commitment may soon be exhausted,” he said.