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California court administrators clash with judges over cuts

California judicial leaders, responding to budget slashing by state lawmakers, voted Friday to approve cutbacks that will close some courthouses, reduce court hours, and delay civil trials, custody decisions and divorces in some counties.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, presiding over the meeting of top judicial policy makers, told the packed auditorium that the courts were in an “unprecedented crisis” and warned that no program would be spared scrutiny.

The Judicial Council, the court’s governing body, which consists primarily of judges and court officials appointed by the chief justice, approved cuts of $350 million from a statewide court budget of $1.5 billion. Council members listened without comment while a parade of judges and court employees pleaded for more money and warned that democracy itself was in danger.

Among the most imperiled courts are San Francisco and San Joaquin County Superior Courts.

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San Joaquin County Presiding Judge Robin Appel told the council that her court would have to close branches and even stop hearing small claims cases, which numbered 3,000 in the county last year. Those who file small claims will have to wait a year or longer to get a judge to hear them, she said.

San Francisco County Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein took jabs at the statewide administrative office that runs the court system and lectured judicial leaders about their solemn duties.

She said her court has sent layoff notices to 41% of staff and plans to close 25 of 63 courtrooms while the Administrative Office of the Courts has been devising grandiose schemes that “are sucking tens of million of dollars from the trial courts.”

“San Francisco may have been the first trial court to fall, but I know that others are soon to follow, and you know that too,” she said.

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The cuts stem from decisions by the state Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown to raid court construction funds and chop the court’s operational funds to close a state budget deficit.

By using one-time fixes and juggling money, the council limited this year’s trims to 8.6% for the trial courts, 9.7% for appellate courts and 12% for the Judicial Council and central administrative office. Those reductions come on top of prior-year cuts that led to court closures and layoffs. Court officials predict another 15.2% cut will be needed next year.

The squeeze has exacerbated tensions between the trial courts and the court system’s central administrative office.

Feinstein told the council that she had received calls from people around the state offering suggestions and consolation.

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By contrast, she said, she was “stunned” that her court had received “not a word” from anyone at the administrative offices, “the entity that is supposed to provide services and support to the trial courts.”

Judge Laurie Earl, assistant presiding judge of Sacramento County Superior Court, accused the administrative office of draining money from the trial courts. “It’s time to stop the bleeding,” she said.

And Kern County Superior Court Judge David R. Lampe, a director of a group of 400 judges advocating less court centralization, said the vision and promise of a unified statewide court system had failed.

Ronald G. Overholt, chief deputy director of the administrative office, countered that the administration was sharing in the suffering, planning layoffs and shrinking along with the rest of the system.

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“The villain here is the economy, and it affects all of us,” he said.

maura.dolan@latimes.com


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