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L.A. County’s top judge faces steep opposition to fund-diversion proposal

At times, he says, he’s a pilot flying at 30,000 feet with engine problems; other times, he’s at the helm of a sinking boat that’s quickly running out of gas.

Whatever the analogy, Los Angeles County Presiding Judge Charles “Tim” McCoy’s message is loud and clear: His court system, the largest trial court in the nation, is facing deep fiscal trouble in the years ahead due to drastic cuts in state government funding.

To save his court from ruin, McCoy has advocated tapping a pool of money that’s supposed to fund court repairs and construction. But the proposed money-grab is ruffling feathers in other parts of the state, setting up a rare political tussle among the state’s judges.

“He sees a pot of gold, and he sees it as a way to solve his problems,” said Contra Costa County Presiding Judge Mary Ann O’Malley. O’Malley, who chairs the state’s Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee, said 53 presiding judges of the state’s 58 trial courts have told her they oppose McCoy’s proposed “raid” of the construction fund.

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The tension brewing in California’s judicial branch has roots dating back to 1998, when the state’s trial courts were taken out of the hands of individual county governments and put in a statewide system.

As the bureaucratic transfer of responsibility crawled on for more than a decade, most counties did little to maintain or repair the facilities that would eventually become the state government’s problem, leaving court buildings in a state of disrepair that many agree is dangerous.

In 2005, a juror died of a heart attack on the sixth floor of the Long Beach courthouse partly because paramedics couldn’t get there in time -- the public elevator didn’t go up to that floor.

“My county kept our building together with chewing gum, it seems like,” said William Murray, who just completed his term as San Joaquin County’s presiding judge.

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A Senate bill passed in 2008 levied new fees on convictions, parking tickets and civil lawsuits, creating a pool of money to back $5 billion in revenue bonds that would fund court repairs and construction. But now, as trial courts are hit with unprecedented cuts in the hundreds of millions of dollars, McCoy says the construction funds should temporarily be diverted to offset budget cuts and keep courtrooms open.

The extra fees and fines are bringing in $83 million a year in L.A. County and $280 million statewide, according to McCoy.

He says he’s looking at plans to close 180 of some 600 L.A. County courtrooms and eliminate 1,800 of about 5,400 jobs by 2013. His court, which accounts for as much as a third of the state’s trial court system, is gearing up to lay off about 330 employees next month, he said.

Building courthouses at a time when he’s looking at closing courtrooms and laying people off, McCoy says, just doesn’t make sense.

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“I just don’t have any intention of committing fiscal suicide with the L.A. Superior Court,” he recently told a gathering of attorneys.

He faces resistance from many counties whose judges contend that their buildings are in such precarious condition that construction can’t be put off any longer. Los Angeles may be able to do without the five courthouses slated to be built with the funds, but for many counties the facilities targeted for construction or repair are their main or only courthouses, some judges said.

In San Diego County, crews changing lightbulbs have to wear hazmat suits because of asbestos in the ceiling. In Yolo County, trials are heard in trailers set up in a converted parking lot, and shackled defendants are led across a city street in chain gangs of six at a time to get from the lockup to the courtroom.

“I don’t think he realizes the ramifications, that the funds are needed across the state,” O’Malley said. “He has lots and lots of courthouses.”

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McCoy’s proposal has also put him at odds with the state’s judicial branch leaders in San Francisco. Chief Justice Ronald George said in a recent meeting with Times editors that the L.A. County Superior Court’s position is “very much misguided” and called McCoy’s forecasts of impending closures and layoffs a “Chicken Little approach.”

“Judge McCoy is somebody who I like as a person, but I think he’s very much on a crusade,” he said. “I think it’s very interesting that no other court has claimed that there will be such calamitous results if these funds aren’t used.”

George also criticized a recent study commissioned by the L.A. County Superior Court that concluded the county’s economy would take a $30-billion hit if court operations were whittled down as McCoy projects. Calling the report “a political document,” George said: “If you want to prove that the moon is made out of blue cheese, you’ll find somebody that will write you a report.”

Meanwhile, McCoy has been continuing to meet with attorneys and judges across the county, advocating for the diversion of funds. And he has been making an effective case -- at one recent meeting of dark-suited lawyers, a family law attorney joked that each time she heard McCoy’s speech, it made her want to go home and take out her old high school pompoms.

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“It’s taking time for people to realize just how grave our problems are,” McCoy said.

victoria.kim@latimes.com


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