Delays, Closures Possible to Bridge Court Fund Gap
By AMANDA BRONSTAD
Faced with the largest budget reduction in history, officials of the L.A. Superior Court are considering a wide range of cutbacks that include additional layoffs, courtroom closures and the shuttering of entire courthouses a few days a month.
As a result, many civil cases, especially those involving business litigation, would be put on the back burner in favor of criminal cases and those involving public safety, court officials said.
As requested by the state Administrative Office of the Courts, the personnel and budget committee of the L.A. Superior Court submitted a proposal outlining areas in which the court could cut costs. The AOC, the staff agency of the Judicial Council of California, which administers the courts, requested the proposal from courts statewide to determine the impact of an estimated 5 percent to 9 percent cut in the court system’s fiscal year 2003-2004 budget that begins July 1.
L.A. Superior Court administrators are mum about details of the Feb. 4 proposal, calling it a “working document” not set in stone.
But union representatives and employees who have met with court administrators about the plan say 11 areas are on the chopping block.
Local court officials will likely take no action until after April 1, or until the state legislature approves both the mid-year budget and the fiscal year 2003-2004 budget, said Allan Parachini, L.A. Superior Court spokesman.
But the picture looks bleak, especially for the court’s 5,500 employees.
“This is like hysteria going on,” said Frances Lewis, a deputy clerk at the East Los Angeles Courthouse who has been getting calls at home from her anxious co-workers. “There’s so many rumors going on, and from so many sources, you can’t even imagine. People are afraid.”
Bill Mitchell, deputy executive officer of administration at the L.A. Superior Court, said furloughing employees may be necessary as a “one-time only” savings that could occur before the fiscal 2003-2004 budget gets approved. “You can furlough employees a day and achieve savings that could result in you not taking additional cuts,” he said.
Furloughing employees could mean, for example, closing the courthouse in Van Nuys or Santa Monica on a first or third Friday of the month, said Damian Tryon, business representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 36. AFSCME represents court clerks and administrative staff.
Civil court impact
The greatest impact of the budget reductions will be felt among civil courts, particularly downtown L.A., said Robert Dukes, presiding judge of the L.A. Superior Court.
He didn’t give specifics, but said criminal cases would take priority, causing delays in civil litigation. A similar situation is unfolding in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California.
“Most presiding judges around the state will tell you we are worried we’ll see great delays in getting civil cases resolved,” Dukes said.
Last fall, L.A. Superior Court faced a 3.7 percent reduction in spending, or $21 million, for fiscal year 2002-2003 that resulted in layoffs of more than 300 staff members and 26 judicial officers, the closure of 29 courtrooms and three lock-ups, and trimming security costs by $10 million.
This time, L.A. Superior Court faces a greater percentage to cut, with 5 percent, or $30 million, the minimum, and 9 percent, or $54 million, the maximum, based on a $600 million court budget. L.A. Superior Court must also combine those cuts with another 1.3 to 2.5 percent proposed mid-year reduction for fiscal year 2002-2003, Parachini said.
He said department heads are almost down to counting “post-its and ball point pens. Obviously, if we had to cut 9 percent from our budget next year, there would be an effect on service levels,” Parachini said. “There would be longer lines, fewer courtrooms and a lengthening of the time it takes to get a civil case to trial. And we have made no secret of the fact that we are evaluating the possibility we would have to have additional staff reductions.”
If staff reductions are necessary, they would probably be “not less” than the cuts made last fall, he said.
Many of the layoffs under consideration this time will likely include upper management positions, such as court administrators and managers, that were duplicated when the county and municipal court systems combined in 2000, union representatives say.
For instance, Pomona has two administrators because it still has two courthouses, said Gary Cramer, executive director of the L.A. County Court Reporters Association and a court reporter in L.A. Superior Court.
Keeping front line
“They realize they can’t lay off their front line people and not have service,” said Damian Tryon, business representative of AFSCME District Council 36, which represents court clerks and administrative staff. “They are looking heavily at the top in terms of consolidating administration units, which is a good direction for them to go on.”
At the same time, most union workers are not optimistic they will be spared layoffs, especially if L.A. Superior Court closes courtrooms. This would affect courtroom personnel such as clerks, court reporters and bailiffs.
Among the largest ongoing costs in L.A. is the $96 million Chatsworth Courthouse, which opened last June with 21 clerical staff members, Dukes said.
A big concern among union workers is a proposal to cut a 3 percent negotiated salary increase by July, when a three-year contract between the courts and the unions expires.
“We negotiated a 3 percent raise, and I don’t want to lose that,” said Lewis, who is on the bargaining committee for Services Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660, which represents court employees involved in legal processing. “It doesn’t seem fair our pay should be cut when there are so many areas of the court to cut from.”
Many of the proposed reductions hinge on Gov. Gray Davis’ budget proposals, which include legislative changes that could reduce a statewide budget shortfall in the courts to $80 million from $200 million, Parachini said. Among those proposals are reallocating undesignated county fees to the state, transferring transcript ownership from court reporters to the courts and expanding the use of electronic reporting to replace court reporters.
So far, counties have objected to relinquishing undesignated fees, and court reporters are vying to keep their jobs, he said. “Until the outcome of those four pieces of legislation are clear, the amount of money statewide to be cut won’t be known,” Parachini said. “And that’s why the AOC asked us for this range of plans. It’s 5 percent being the best case, and 9 percent the worst case.”