L.A. County Judges Cope With Budget Crisis

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Supervising judges, outlining the impact of budget cuts on Los Angeles Superior Court, warned that current levels of spending are unsustainable.
     At the Los Angeles County Bar Association civil litigation walk-through program at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse on March 15, Assistant Presiding Judge Carolyn Kuhl told dozens of lawyers that the court is still dealing with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis.
     There are 475 judges in the largest court in the nation. There were 58 courts in 2000. Now 38 courts serve 10 million people, Kuhl said.
     "We've been in a constant state of reduction," the judge said.
     In the past three fiscal years, the judge, said the Superior Court has had to absorb a recurring budget shortfall of $187 million. The result: longer wait times and lines, and increase workloads for judges.
     The court cut 25 percent of its staff since 2008.
     For fiscal year 2013-14 the court had to made do with 4,168 staff, though it needs 5,760, the judge said - a 27 percent shortfall.
     Eight courthouses closed in fiscal year 2012 - 2013 and the court was forced to shut 12 criminal courts. Traffic courtrooms were reduced from 17 to 16. All juvenile referees were laid off.
     Consolidation has affected everyone who uses the courts, Kuhl said. Small claims cases have been folded in to six locations. The court shrank unlawful detainer cases into five. Two locations in Chatsworth and Norwalk each handle 45,000 limited civil collection cases.
     "Something's got to give," said Kuhl, who has been with the court 18 years.
     "We're at a point where we're going to stabilize, reassess and move forward."
     While Kuhl said the court would do the "best we can internally," she said the court "desperately" needs a new case management system to handle the workload. The court will have to move staff around to deal with a backlog of cases.
     "It's not much, it's baby steps," Kuhl said. "But at least we are moving forward. And we're grateful for that."
     Supervising Judge Daniel Buckley asked attorneys to remain patient as the court deals with closures and reduced staff.
     "We never woke up and thought it would be a good idea to put 45,000 cases in one courthouse," Buckley said.
     The judge said that in time he hoped the court could once again dispose of 95 percent of its cases in a year.
     "Justice is better when we have matters resolved quicker," the judge said.
     Though Buckley said the court would continue to seek savings, he struck a note of caution to lawmakers who saw the court's "success" in dealing with budget cuts as an excuse to keep funding at current levels. The Superior Court has hit "rock bottom," he said.
     Folding small claims cases into fewer courthouses means that rather than traveling 2 miles, some people have to travel 25 miles, Buckley said.
     "Right now the fixes we have are just a bunch of Band-Aids," the judge said.
     He said the court has taken a step in the right direction by balancing its budget and will invest in new cost-cutting technology.
     But he said the court's computers still use the DOS operating system. In 2 to 3 years the court hopes to have a new e-filing and modern case management system.
     Buckley urged lawyers to do their part by filing fewer demurrers. A legal maneuver to challenge a pleading by an opposing party, demurrers are often needless and can clog up the court, the judge said.