L.A. Superior Closes Courthouses, Slashes Jobs

     LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles Superior Court will close eight courthouses and slash hundreds of jobs to cut the last $85 million from its $195 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year.
     The court announced its restructuring plan Friday. It said it already has cut $110 million from its annual budget but needs to cut $85 million more by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.
     The Superior Court has cut 511 jobs and consolidated courts. It will relocate criminal, traffic, juvenile, small claims, eviction disputes, and civil collections to other courts.
     Personal injury, probate cases and some civil cases will be heard only at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse downtown.
     Some civil trials will now be heard in dedicated county trial courts.
     State funding cuts left the county court system with an annual $195 million budget shortfall.
     The court said in a statement that the 511 job cuts would bring its workforce reduction over the past four years to 24 percent. The $110 million already cut constituted more than 15 percent of its discretionary budget.
     But the remaining $85 million shortfall forced the court to swing the ax again.
     Presiding Judge David Wesley said the court has "lived up to its promise" to provide full-service courts throughout the county, but the courts "no longer have the resources to do so."
     "We are now being forced by budget cuts to make changes that will disadvantage litigants, attorneys, justice system partners and all court users across the spectrum and across our court," Wesley said in a statement.
     The judge called the consolidations the court's "day of reckoning" and a "last ditch effort to save access to justice in Los Angeles County."
     "The result will be reduced services, long lines and travel distances that may well deter people from seeking and getting the justice they deserve. It is a sad irony that as our economy is turning the corner our justice system is going downhill," Wesley said.
     The restructuring plan was approved by the court's budget committee, supervising judges and court executives.
     More than 50 judges and staff made the decisions on job cuts and court closures after five months spent looking at alternatives, the court said.
     As courthouses across the state count their pennies, Californians will feel the pain.
     Closures in San Bernardino mean litigants will have to travel an additional 130 miles.
     Fresno Superior Court will operate courthouses only in the city of Fresno.
     Los Angeles County courthouses will close at Beacon Street, Huntington Park, Kenyon Juvenile, Malibu, Pomona North, San Pedro, West Los Angeles and Whittier, and most court work will be removed from Beverly Hills and Catalina.
     The county will also wave goodbye to an alternative dispute resolution center, cut court reporters and lay off all juvenile referees, the court announced.
     "Justice requires a court," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in her annual State of the Judiciary speech. "But what we once counted on - that courts would be open, available and ready to dispense prompt justice - no longer exists in California."
     Community groups sued the Superior Court last week, for cutting access to eviction hearing courthouses. The federal lawsuit claimed the court's action "shuts the courthouse doors on many of the county's most vulnerable residents."
     Community members, lawyers and court workers rallied outside the Stanley Mosk Courthouse last Thursday to protest the closures, staging a mock trial to highlight the impact of the cuts.
     "We're going to do everything we can to stop these closures, because if the judges have their way, we're the ones who will be left behind," SEIU Local 721 President Bob Schoonover said at the rally. "Our neighbors and family members will be taking five hour bus rides across the county just to have their day in court. That's just not fair."