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Court funding — It’s different in California (special edition)

September 7, 2011

The latest in my occasional series on how we do things a bit different here in California concerns an extremely sad state of affairs here in the Golden State. Many articles and press releases (see here, here, here, here, and here) have been written on the current state of California’s budget woes, and how poorly the courts have fared in getting a fair share of the budgetary pie. Which is all well and good for the wonks. But for those of us who work in the trenches out here — and particularly for the parties who are forced, by circumstance or by summons, to participate in civil actions — less has been written.

Here’s how the court funding crisis is really crippling California citizens’ ability to get disputes resolved.

  • Alameda County: The court has for some time closed its doors at 4:00 p.m., but for the foreseeable future will close at 2:30 p.m., five days a week. Court reporters will not generally be available (except for law and motion) in most civil departments — but feel free to hire your own (if you can afford it).
  • San Mateo County: Will be closing a civil courtroom for two days a week.
  • San Francisco County: SF was hit particularly hard, including a 41% reduction in staff (almost 200 jobs), closure of 15 of 18 civil trial departments (including both complex case departments), closure of case management departments, and closure of one of two law and motion departments. Breaking news is somewhat better, but still grim. A recent compromise will keep the lights on in 11 civil trial departments (including both complex case departments) and will require a layoff of “only” 75 full time staff employees.
  • San Joaquin County: Is closing one branch entirely and another partially. That’s three fewer civil departments to hear disputes.
  • Yolo County: Clerks offices will be closing at 3:00 every day.
  • Los Angeles County: The state’s largest trial court has predictably seen the largest impact, with three-year plans calling for elimination of 1,800 jobs, closure of more than 180 courtrooms or effectively 9 complete courthouses, closure of half of all civil courtrooms one-third of the family and children’s courtrooms, and drastic cuts to traffic operations, all leading to a prospective tripling of the length of civil cases (from 16 months to 4 1/2 years).
  • Merced County: Clerks offices will close at 3:00 every day, and virtually the entire court will be closed on seven “limited service” days between now and the end of 2011.
  • Mendocino County: Clerks offices will close at 3:00 every day.
  • Marin County: Clerks offices will close at 3:00 every day.

The bottom line is longer wait times for litigants to get disputes resolved. And as the aphorism goes, justice delayed is justice denied. It also costs more. That is no doubt of concern to well-heeled corporate litigants, but for individuals it may well mean that wrongs go unredressed — or get redressed in other, less civilized methods. Those able to pay can also opt for private justice in the form of arbitration, further dividing the courthouse haves from the have-nots.

All is not lost. The courts are continuing to discuss the crisis with the other branches of government, and many private firms and bar associations have come up with ideas worth pursuing. But whether the glass is half full or half empty, the status quo is clearly not acceptable for anyone who believes in equal and meaningful access to the services of California’s courts — as the state constitution promises, and as the state should make sure it delivers.

Maybe next year it really will be different in California. Judges, lawyers, and civil litigants sure hope so.

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3 Comments
  1. Casey, thanks for linking to my blog post on the topic in your SF paragraph, and for covering this topic so well. I’m glad to discover your blog and will start subscribing. You really nail the situation in your conclusion — there may be some silver linings to this crisis, but the status quo is unacceptable for our state’s judicial system.
    – Morgan
    Cogent Legal (cogentlegal.com)

    • Morgan, thank you for the comment and great content on yours. I’m really hoping the gov and legislature have stepped back from the brink. Time will tell. -Casey

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