Cutbacks in California court system produce long lines, short tempers
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye remembers the moment she learned that the Kings County Superior Court had resorted to holding a garage sale to raise money.
“That was a day of extreme humiliation and embarrassment to me,” Cantil-Sakauye said.
During her three years as chief justice, recession-driven cutbacks in California’s huge court system have produced long lines and short tempers at courthouses throughout the state. Civil cases are facing growing delays in getting to trial, and court closures have forced residents in some counties to drive several hours for an appearance.
The effects vary from county to county, with rural regions hit the hardest but no court left unscathed. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected Tuesday to announce his revised budget plan, which will determine whether more courthouses will have to close next year. Legislators from both parties have called on Brown to raise funding.
Unlike in federal court, it is impossible to file all cases electronically in most state courts, and fights regularly erupt in snaking lines at clerks’ offices. Telephone systems are antiquated, and there are not enough people to answer the calls. Court reporters who provide transcripts of hearings have been eliminated for civil cases in many counties, making it more difficult for the losing party to appeal.
Cantil-Sakauye said annual case filings have dropped by about 2.5 million statewide in the last few years, possibly because delays, higher costs and longer drives have discouraged users.
“I don’t believe we are becoming a more law-abiding, rule-following society,” she said. “But we have closed more than 50 courthouses and eliminated 3,900 full-time positions. So are people finally getting the message they shouldn’t bother to come to court?”
Retired Judge Stephen Jahr, who heads the court’s statewide administrative office, said delays in civil trials are approaching levels not seen since the 1970s, before laws were passed to speed up trial dates.
Without significantly more money in the coming year, civil cases “being filed today will not get to trial until five years, which is the mandatory dismissal date,” Jahr said. “We will be back to where we started 25 years ago.”
The picture is vastly different from the late 1990s, when the courts unified under one branch and funding shifted from counties to the state. New courthouses were planned. A computer system that was supposed to link all the courts was ordered.
Then the economy took a nose dive. Cantil-Sakauye had been chief for only one month in 2011 when the state issued an audit blasting the judicial branch for spending $500 million on a computer system plagued with problems. The project has since been abandoned, but the scandal damaged the courts’ credibility with state legislators.
A dissident group of judges charged that the court’s San Francisco administrative office, which receives 3.8% of the $3.14-billion court budget, was wasteful. Legislators have approved a pending audit of the office, and Cantil-Sakauye said she has trouble dispelling suspicions that it was hiding “buckets of money.”
She said she has a good relationship with Brown. “I enjoy his company, and he is always available,” she said. “He listens but never commits. … He is a person who thinks big ideas, he talks about the court reinventing itself by restructuring or becoming more efficient.”
She said she agrees the courts should not be “static,” but noted that some efficiencies require upfront investments to save money down the road.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown’s Department of Finance, said the state has tried to ensure courts were maintained “at a relatively stable level in recent years.” Other state services fared worse, he said, and also are clamoring for more money.
Brown’s budget proposal concedes the coming year will be “challenging” for the courts. He has proposed a $105-million increase, which judicial leaders say is not enough to prevent more court closures and cutbacks. The local reserves courts tapped into in the past to cushion state cuts are now gone.
Cantil-Sakauye said the courts need an additional $266 million “just to tread water” in the coming fiscal year, $612 million to be fully functional and $1.2 billion over three years to make up for past cuts.
Many court delays stem from staff shortages. Legal documents pile up, delaying judgments. Clerks in Contra Costa County said they have received complaints from people who divorced and wanted to remarry but couldn’t because clerks had not yet processed the paperwork for judges’ signatures.
Presiding Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barry P. Goode said he discovered 20 feet of unfiled civil law documents in a clerk’s office. Judges complained that they did not have the files before them when cases were called.
“It makes your heart sick to see what we have done to the courts,” said Goode, surrounded by unfiled legal documents in the Martinez court.
The number of public windows and their hours have been slashed at courthouses throughout the state.
The lines are so long at the Martinez courthouse that Cookie Gambucci, who files legal documents for lawyers, now brings stickers and toys for the children of parents waiting in line. “I am waiting two to three hours, and I can’t stand babies crying and parents wanting to beat their children,” Gambucci said.
Los Angeles County is down 80 courtrooms and has eliminated court reporters in civil cases. Getting a trial for a traffic case can take a year. Trials on civil matters may require a two-year wait.
“The result of all this is delays and backlogs,” Presiding Judge David S. Wesley said. “I have long lines all over the county.”
In San Bernardino County, the Superior Court has stopped summoning jurors from Needles, making the guarantee of a jury of one’s peers elusive. Because of court closures in the High Desert, a trip to court from Needles can take some residents 31/2 hours.
“We are really on the borderline of a constitutional crisis,” said Marsha Slough, the county’s presiding judge. “We have victims who want to give up because they don’t want to testify in criminal trials because of the driving distances and costs.”
The county has closed four courthouses, scaled back hours in a fifth and remains short 600 employees, Slough said. Poor High-Desert communities were the most affected.
A change in a child custody order can take at least four months because of lack of staff, Slough said. “This is a lifetime for a child,” she said.
At the Victorville branch, people without lawyers who need help take a number and wait. A sign warns those waiting that they may not be seen that day. Mario Campos, 43, said he had been in line an hour and a half to get help with a divorce. About 10 people were still ahead of him.
“It is a long time, but it is a lot faster than usual,” said Campos, a pizza delivery driver.
Kerrie Justice, a family law attorney, said one of her clients has been waiting nearly three years to resolve a child custody dispute because of court closures and judge reassignments. “This case should have taken a year,” Justice said.
Victorville criminal defense lawyer Brendon Atwood said there aren’t enough judges to handle the caseload. “You may get 30 seconds of the court’s time instead of six or seven minutes,” he said.
Prosecutors say the squeeze has delayed criminal trials, and the wait benefits defendants. Witnesses and victims, reluctant to testify in gang cases, may no longer be reachable by the time of the trial.
Criminal defendants from far-flung parts of the county don’t show for court because they don’t have transportation, criminal defense lawyers say. Arrest warrants are then issued.
Chris Gardner, an assistant public defender in San Bernardino County, said the expense and costs of traveling hundreds of miles for multiple court appearances have made some clients just want to give up.
“We have a lot of clients, when they do show up to court, they just want to plead guilty so they don’t have to go through the whole process again,” Gardner told a legislative subcommittee. “It is a big problem.”
Sheriff deputies and police officers also must leave their communities to testify. Because of the distances, a deputy may spend seven or eight hours commuting to testify for only 15 minutes, said San Bernardino Deputy Dist. Atty. Tiffany Hidalgo.
Virginia Turner, the mother of a teenage girl who was attacked at her school, said her daughter went to court in Richmond in October to obtain a domestic violence restraining order. The girl’s lawyer discovered the court had stopped providing reporters to transcribe such hearings.
With the judge’s permission, the lawyer turned on her cellphone to record the alleged attacker’s testimony. But it didn’t pick up his words, and his statements could not be used against him in a later proceeding, Turner said.
“It isn’t pretty,” said Cantil-Sakauye, “but this is how operational cuts look.”
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