Court Crisis Looms, O.C. Judges Warn : Finances: Courthouses may be forced to close unless $31.7-million budget gap is plugged, supervisors are told. County may turn to state for bailout.

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In their most dire warning yet, Orange County's judges on Thursday urged that the county plug a $31.7-million shortfall or risk shuttering courthouses for three months and setting free thousands of criminal defendants next spring.

Taking the first step toward a possible legal showdown with county officials, administrators for the six superior and municipal courthouses predicted starkly that they will run out of money by April 15 without the emergency infusion.

The closures would spawn havoc in a court system already strained to its limit by bankruptcy-related cutbacks and rising caseloads, the judges warned in a legal notice to the Board of Supervisors.

Judges warned that closure could jeopardize public safety by putting criminal suspects back on the streets and forcing charges to be dropped in thousands of cases where the defendants' right to a speedy trial is violated. Even small claims cases and divorces would grind to a halt, they said.

"This is not a game of chicken," said Judge James L. Smith, presiding judge of Orange County Superior Court. "We're not talking about walnut paneling on the courthouse walls. We're not talking about shag carpeting in the judge's chambers. . . . All we want to do is keep most of our fingers and toes."

Court administrators, expecting the cash-strapped county to reject the request, will likely have to make the same pitch to state officials in charge of funding trial courts. Although the state runs the courts, whose duties are required by the U.S. Constitution and state law, the job of paying to keep them going has fallen largely to the counties.

"The state is going to have to belly up to the bar because we simply do not have $31 million," said Orange County Chief Executive Officer Janice Mittermeier.

The judges' bid for more money is drastic, using for the first time in Orange County a state law that requires counties to keep their courts running. It follows a similar action in September by the Los Angeles County Superior Court, which said it needs $41.4 million to stay open past April.

Both counties are backing a bid by state court officials to increase total court funding by $85 million statewide, a move that could help the courts escape their financial bind. That funding would need approval from Gov. Pete Wilson and the state Legislature.

Mittermeier doubted that any shutdown would occur, noting that court officials may be able to take other cost-cutting steps. She said the courts, unlike many county agencies, have not been forced to lay off workers and have been able to fill some vacant positions. County officials have said that shifting millions of dollars to the courts could set off new fiscal woes.

Court officials insist they've done everything in their power to cut costs, returning nearly $6 million to the county this year. Salaries were frozen and nearly all employee training eliminated, the judges said. Computer improvements were delayed and overtime payments chopped about 90%, they said. Routine maintenance and landscaping work around the courthouses is now done by convicts working off their fines or jail sentences.

The problems for Orange County courts intensified when the state's budget for trial courts this year provided far less money than local court officials expected. Smith said county officials aggravated the difficulties when they approved in September an austere operating budget within the $3.4-billion overall spending plan. The amount the county will pay toward the court's $140-million operating budget was about $20 million lower than last year's level.

The judges said the combination of setbacks has left the local court system facing a deficit once projected as high as $41 million. The shortfall is now estimated to be $31.7 million.

"We will run out of money in April," said Judge Craig E. Robison, presiding judge in Harbor Municipal Court in Newport Beach. "I'm a pretty altruistic person, but I don't think the court staff will want to show up for two or three months . . . and work for free. It's as dire as it sounds."

In Los Angeles County, court officials already have been rebuffed by county supervisors and the state court budget commission, said Judy Call, a deputy executive director for the Superior Court. For now, officials in Los Angeles are counting on a last-minute state bailout early next year, Call said.

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