Nation's Biggest Court Dealt 'Crippling Blow'

     LOS ANGELES (CN) - The nation's biggest court announced Monday extraordinary staff cuts and courtroom closures as a result of both California's budget crisis and long term policy by the top administrative brass for California's courts.
     "These are extraordinary measures, never before seen in the Los Angeles Superior Court," wrote Presiding Judge Lee Edmon in a memo sent to court staff Monday. "These changes will affect every judicial officer and staff member -- as well as the millions of attorneys and litigants who depend upon our courts to deliver justice."
     The immediate effect of the cuts is the layoff of 300 court employees this June plus the closure of 50 courtrooms.
     "It looks certain that more than 50 courtrooms will be closed countywide," said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dan Oki who is on the court's budget working group. "Our leadership in the past has done a great job reducing our operating budget without affecting courtroom operations," he added. "But that ability is gone now and we're moving strongly into the courtrooms."
     The axe being taken to the Los Angeles court, the biggest in the United States, is part of an overall budget battle in California that has resulted in the slashing of fundamental government operations including schools, transportation and the courts.
     Democratic Governor Jerry Brown is pushing for a tax increase through a voter initiative in November, a measure generally opposed by the state's Republican legislators. If that initiative fails to pass, a further "trigger cut" of $125 million will be required across California's trial courts.
     "Solutions are dwindling while reductions continue and uncertainty looms," wrote Edmon. "The trial courts' future remains very risky."
     Over the last three years, the California Legislature had cut the overall court budget by a total of $652 million. The effects of those cuts were softened in the first two years by a series of short-term measures and the tapping of reserve funds.
     But now the pain is taking hold.
     For many trial judges, the cuts represent past policies of the central administrative office coming home to roost.
     Last summer, for example, the Administrative Office of the Courts budgeted hundreds of millions more for an IT project, called the Court Case Management System, that has already drained a half-billion dollars from court funds. Those enormous additional sums, for an IT project considered a fiasco by many trial judges, were proposed as the budget crisis loomed.
     In addition, heavy staffing for the central office, retroactive raises, and a lavish pension plan for its top brass have also generated regular fire from the trial judges and legislators.
     "After years of warning of this future and planning as best we in Los Angeles could, the future is now upon us," said Judge Stephen Czuleger. "Los Angeles and many other courts must now live with years of poor planning and bad choices by the AOC and Judicial Council."
     "Ignoring the realities that was apparent to many of us, massive spending on ill planned technology and on other questionable priorities will mean that court rooms will close, employees will lose their jobs and service to the public will be decreased," he continued. "This while the AOC's flawed plans continued almost unabated."
     In attempting to deal with the budget crisis, the central administrative office has split that total amount that needs to be cut into two parts. An amount of $350 million is to be saved by requiring each of California's 58 trial courts to cut back its operations in proportion to its share of the overall court budget.
     An additional $300 million is supposed to come from a request to the Legislature for restoration of $100 million, plus another $100 million from new fees and the redirection of construction funds, plus a draw-down of local court reserves for another $100 million.
     But, said Oki in Los Angeles, the idea of getting another $100 million from the Legislature is a long shot.
     "That of course is iffy at best. I don't know if there is another $100 million statewide that can be taken from other programs and given to the courts, but we certainly support that effort."
     The notion of drawing reserves down further drew similar skepticism.
     "We're looking at reducing our reserves over 3 years to as little as $15 million, which sounds like a lot of money, but in an organization that at one time had an annual budget of $1 billion, it's a drop in the bucket," he cautioned. "It is less than one month's salary for our employees."
     Oki shared the view that the half-billion dollars spent on the IT project could have saved the Los Angeles courts from much of the ongoing damage.
     "When I think about the amount of money that's been spent over the years on CCMS, I realized if our court just had $30 million more this year in our operating budget none of these layoffs would be necessary," said Oki. "I think these layoffs probably could have been avoided altogether if we hadn't gone so far with CCMS and realized it was more important to keep trial courts operating."
     The coming round of layoffs follows on top of firings and attrition that started in April 2010, he said. "We're down 584 people since 2010 -- that's before layoffs this year."
     Monday's four-page memo from Presiding Judge Edmon and the court's top administrators, Clerk John Clarke, followed a meeting of the court's executive committee last week, when Courthouse News reported that a decision to lay off 300 was imminent.
     "The impending layoffs are the next step in the process of achieving this down sizing gradually, rather than catastrophically," wrote Edmon. "The next round of cuts will be the most significant even to happen to our Court. Never before has our Court had to cut so deeply into the core work of adjudication. Never before has a budget crisis dealt so crippling a blow to our Court."
     "But money is not destiny," said Edmon in concluding on an up note. "The ultimate impacts of this blow will be determined by our response to it. That is why, while we are greatly concerned about our future, we do not despair. Our Court has a history of working together in the best interests of justice; that history will serve us well as we come to grips with the coming changes."
     Individual judges, however, expressed a long-smoldering anger with the bureaucrats who control the purse strings and the governing council of judges that approves their spending projects.
     "These current cuts are now (and have been for years) impacting Los Angeles directly and in a devastating manner," said Judge Czuleger in Los Angeles. "Are the cuts in part the result of a poor economy and Legislative cuts? Of course."
     "Could they have been better planned for and alleviated in some ways by the AOC and Judicial Council? Without doubt. This result was foreseeable and could have been dealt with by good leadership and intelligent planning. It was not."
     "Instead, AOC priorities were maintained at all costs," he concluded. "This is what becomes of empire building."