Court Sets Staff Cutbacks in Face Of Rising Deficit
By AMANDA BRONSTAD
The Los Angeles Superior Court executive committee has voted to lay off 150 staff members and 26 judicial officers by Nov. 1, enraging local union leaders and trial attorneys who fear that the cutbacks are unnecessary and detrimental to cases.
The court already had given notice to 168 employees in August, when it announced plans to close 29 courtrooms and three lock-ups, as well as trim security costs by $10 million.
Court officials say the November layoffs and closures are necessary given a shortfall in state funds for the 2002-2003 fiscal year, which began July 1, 2002. In all, the system faces a $57.3 million deficit.
But trial attorneys and the unions representing court employees said costs could have been shaved in other ways, sparing longer lines, longer times to trial and job cuts.
“I think they’re dangerously tinkering with a very sensitive mechanism in our democracy, and I think they ought to re-think it,” said Pierce O’Donnell, a trial attorney with O’Donnell & Shaeffer LLP. “I’m not trying to be an alarmist. But when you close 29 court rooms and have fewer support staff and court clerks, I’m worried about it.”
The first 168 laid off employees were primarily temporary and recently hired workers. The additional 150 are primarily full-time staff in lower-level positions, as well as bailiffs and court clerks from the 29 closed courtrooms.
The court was forced to make a second round of layoffs after the Judicial Council of California, which administers funds to the state’s courts, told the courts it faced a 3.7 percent budget reduction as a result of the recently approved state budget.
A six-judge subcommittee of the L.A. Superior Court planning and budget committee will decide by Oct. 15 which of the 176 employees will be laid off and which courtrooms will be closed, said Kyle Christopherson, a spokesman for the court.
Meantime, leaders from the Services Employees International Union Local 660 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 36 met with court officials during the week of Sept. 23 to sway their decision on job cuts as the Oct. 15 deadline approaches.
SEIU represents court employees involved in legal processing, particularly in municipal and small claims court. ASFCME represents court clerks and administrative support employees.
Seeking a voice
Union officials said they were left out of the court’s recent decision on the most recent round of layoffs and are reviewing its $600 million budget to come up with alternatives.
“It’s clear to us there are plenty of savings in other areas that can be made before people are let go,” said Damian Tryon, business representative for District Council 36, which distributed fliers outside various courthouses last week denouncing the planned cuts. “What we don’t understand is why the court is not looking to cut in those areas.”
Among the union’s suggested alternatives are the elimination of supplies for this fiscal year, including a $40,000 desk for a court administrator in Compton and 700 to 800 flat screen monitors worth $1,200 to $1,500 each for judicial officers, Tryon said. The union’s detailed budgetary information comes from information provided by its members, he said.
Court spokesman Allan Parachini said he could not say whether the court purchased a $40,000 desk and he knew nothing about the computer monitors.
“We’ve been hearing about this alleged $40,000 desk for days,” Parachini said. “Whose office is it in? We’d be delighted to respond, but I don’t know what we’re responding to.”
Sandra Stewart, director of special districts division of Local 660, said L.A. Superior Court “has been spending money hand over fist. Now, they have to go to the radical position of laying off, which won’t help Los Angeles. If you slow down the courts, shut down 29 court rooms and lay off the people who do the processing of all those documents, you are going to slow down the legal system in the county.”
Judges and attorneys are most concerned about the anticipated slowdown.
L.A. Superior Court will eliminate 26 of its 201 judicial officer positions, which includes 142 commissioners, 14 referees and 45 assigned judges who hear cases that overflow from the 429 permanent judges.
L.A. Superior Court Judge Judith Chirlin said she expects her caseload to increase since she often allocates work to assigned, or retired, judges. The shortage of judges could create delays in going to trial, she said.
“We desperately need judges,” said Patricia Glaser, a trial attorney with Christensen Miller Fink Jacobs Glaser Weil & Shapiro LLP. “Some of these senior judges were serving a significant role in getting swifter justice. You will see a demonstrable difference because it will take longer to get to trial. Each judge will have a bigger case load.”
Civil disputes are most likely be delayed, since criminal cases face strict rules for being processed through the judicial system, said Jeff Riffer, a defamation and breach of contract attorney at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Marmaro LLP.
Extending the time it takes to bring a civil case to trial by even six months could impact the outcome of some cases, he said. Most civil cases already take about a year to get to trial.
While many business disputes can be resolved privately by a paid judge, he said, both parties have to agree to the process, which may not be in the best interest of the defendant.
The prospect of a case taking longer to get to trial may force some plaintiffs to settle more quickly, while defendants will seek delays to force the plaintiff to settle or give in to a lower settlement amount, he said.
Christopherson admitted that the court did not plan well for increased expenditures last year. The court was already $36 million in the red when it began this fiscal year. The deficit was created by costs associated with the construction of the $96 million Chatsworth Courthouse, which opened June 30, as well as increased employee pension contributions and raises for unionized managers. The court also spent more than $13 million in services and supplies, exceeding its state budget allocation. Christopherson said inflation was responsible for the added costs.
Christopherson said the court has now established a “better financial tracking system” that can help it identify unanticipated costs in the future.
Still, court officials defend their recent decision to cut jobs.
Parachini said the court actually saved jobs by reducing 200 positions already vacant, primarily because of retirees. The court also saved jobs by moving quickly with layoffs.
“Twelve months of cuts have to be compressed in the remaining nine months of the fiscal year,” he said. “That means if we don’t act quickly, we will have to eliminate a far larger number of jobs.”