In their most dire warning yet, Orange County's judges said Thursday that courthouses could be shuttered for three months and thousands of criminal defendants set free next spring unless the county plugs a $31.7-million budget shortfall.
Taking the first step toward a possible legal showdown with county officials, administrators for the six superior and municipal courthouses predicted starkly they will run out of money by April 15 without the emergency infusion.
The closures would create havoc in a court system already strained to its limit from bankruptcy-related cutbacks and rising caseloads, the judges warned in a legal notice to the Board of Supervisors required before the courts can order payment.
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 the 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. Though 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," Orange County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier said.
Mittermeier said she doubted that any shutdown would occur, noting that court officials might 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 inmates working off their fines or jail sentences.
"Severely inadequate funding . . . has starved the Orange County courts; only the bones and sinew of the system remain," said a letter signed by Judge Smith and the five supervising Municipal Court judges.
"Without the emergency funding requested, it will be impossible for even this emaciated system of justice in Orange County to remain intact."
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 in operation 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.
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 at 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."
The notification forwarded to county supervisors, called a notice of deficiency, painted a stunningly grim portrait of Orange County's legal system without emergency funding. If the court closed for the last three months of the fiscal year ending June 30, the judges warned:
* Thousands of defendants denied their right to speedy trial would have to be released.
* 6,000 felony cases would not be filed.
* More than 3,000 drunk drivers would not be prosecuted.
* Officials would have to turn away 25,000 civil cases, including small claims.
* 6,000 child-support claims would not be heard.
* Thousands of juvenile and family-law cases, including divorces, would be put on hold until July 1.
Not everyone was expressing panic, however.
Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi said he had not studied the judges' notification and did not want to comment on the doomsday scenario.
"We have enough of our own matters going on without injecting ourselves into that," Capizzi said. "It's down the road and we'll address it, if and when it becomes an immediate reality."
Supervisor Marian Bergeson said the notification was "not unexpected," adding that the county was hopeful the state will come up with the money.
The judges' action Thursday is only the first step in a process that could eventually lead the local courts to order money from the county under the state law.
The county has until Jan. 10 to answer. If county officials refuse to pay, the matter goes before a state court-funding commission, which could shift funds from other counties. Should that fail, the Orange County courts may order the bankrupt county to keep them running. It is unclear whether the issue would require approval by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
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.