Lawyers Protest Shuttering of SF Federal Court

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - As once-a-month federal court closures took effect Friday, lawyers practicing in Northern California called the closures "death by a thousand cuts" and "an outrage."
     "I don't think the U.S. is going to revert to an uncivilized 'Lord of the Flies' situation, but I do think the public underestimates the effect the courts have as a backstop for civilized behavior," said Richard Seabold, president of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers.
     He said the cuts to the courts show that the American public tends to take the courts for granted.
     "What worries me is if this is a sort of 'death by a thousand cuts,'" said Seabolt a partner with Duane Morris in San Francisco. The cutbacks in court funding, he said, represent "a terrible trend."
     The Northern District of California announced in March that its divisions San Francisco, San Jose and Eureka will shut down on the first Friday of each month starting in June. The Oakland branch will close on the first Mondays of each month.
     "Budget reductions caused by sequestration" were cited as the reason for the furloughs. Sequestration reduced funding for the federal judiciary by almost $350 million -- a 5 percent cut, the Northern District of California said in a statement.
     Joseph Alioto, a San Francisco antitrust lawyer, said he considered it an "outrage" that the justice system would be "sacrificed, even [for] a day.
     "The idea that they should be cutting a minute, even a second, from the administration of justice is an abomination that this country should never have to tolerate," said Alioto, a son of the late Joseph Alioto, former mayor of San Francisco.
     He added that justice in the courts is a hallmark of American society.
     "If anything should be cut, it should be anything other than that," Alioto said. "The courts have historically received less of the budget than any other part of the government. Nothing is more important than justice in a free, democratic system. To take away from that in the slightest way is to diminish what our country is about."
     "They used to say the greatest thing about our country is that everybody gets their day in court," Alioto continued. "That day can't be shut off because of sequestration or anything else."
     The courts and the people took the hit, however, because they are the only "two groups in the U.S. who don't have any lobbyists," Alioto also said.
     California State Bar president Patrick Kelly noted that California attorneys went through a similar situation when some state courts implemented furloughs in 2008.
     The decision to close the courts "limits the access to justice for the people who want to use the federal court system, which is unfortunate," Kelly said. "One of my principal concerns as president of the California Bar is a limitation to justice in the state court system. Now we'll see it in the federal court system."
     Access to justice had been the bar's driving force to secure funding for state courts, and "the same types of issues are now injected into the federal court system, and that is unfortunate," added Kelly, who also serves as the western regional managing partner for Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker LLP in Los Angeles.
          Judge Julia Gibbons, who chaired the federal Judicial Conference Budget Committee, said earlier this year that sequestration put the judiciary in "uncharted territory," facing a "budget crisis that is unprecedented, one that is not likely to end in the near term."
     "We believe we have done all we can to minimize the impact of sequestration, but a cut of this magnitude, particularly so late in the fiscal year, will affect every aspect of court operations," Gibbons said in a statement.
     Sequestration hits the judiciary particularly hard because its budget is so heavily driven by people, including the cost of judges and court staff, the space needed to work, the cost of defense attorneys, jurors, the courtrooms they occupy, court security officers, and their equipment.
     Each court will decide how to implement many of the funding cuts. The courts say the cuts could come in the form of up to 2,000 layoffs or furloughs of one day per pay period, which would represent a 10 percent pay cut.
     "Reductions of this magnitude strike at the heart of our entire system of justice and spread throughout the country," Gibbons told the Judicial Conference this month. "The longer the sequestration stays in place, the more severe will be its impact on the courts and those who use them."
     "These actions are unsustainable, difficult, and painful to implement," Gibbons added. "Indeed, the Judiciary cannot continue to operate at sequestration funding levels without seriously compromising the constitutional mission of the federal courts."
     The federal courthouses will remain open on furlough days. New filings can be put in drop boxes at the courts and will be considered filed on the day they are put in the drop box.
     Urgent matters at furloughed locations that cannot wait until the next court day should be brought to an open location.
     Hearings that fall on furlough days will be rescheduled.
     Judges will decide individually if court-imposed deadlines that fall on furlough days will be postponed until the next business day.
     Court personnel also told Courthouse News that the courts will make a transition to mandatory e-filing of new cases, beginning with a pilot program this spring. The Northern District of California already requires e-filing for most documents but case-origination filings had been excluded from the rule.
     The courts have not yet officially announced changes to e-filing. Electronic case filing will be available on furlough days.