SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Layoff notices are in the mail to 200 workers from San Francisco Superior Court, a 40 percent reduction that Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein blamed squarely on Sacramento, saying: “Our government and Legislature have used our judiciary as an ATM to solve their budget crisis.” The court also will shut 25 courtrooms.
“This is a grim day for our court,” Feinstein said Monday, as she spoke on cuts to the court’s operating budget. “We now know the trial courts are the lowest priority in Sacramento.”
Feinstein did not spare the Judicial Council of California and the Administrative Office of the Courts, saying, “I include myself in the growing list of judges frustrated by the J.C.C. and the A.O.C.”
The Superior Court’s 2011 fiscal year budget of $75 million is down from $98 million in 2008, Feinstein said, and the court already has gone through its $10 million rainy-day fund. Unpaid furloughs and a hiring freeze that reduced the head count in the past 3 years from 591 to 483 employees could not prevent a $13.75 million deficit for 2011.
Asked why San Francisco is taking more drastic measures than other county courts, Feinstein, who was elected presiding judge in June 2010 after 10 years on the court’s bench, said, “We kicked the can down the road too far for too long.”
She said the court had counted on an improved economy that did not materialize.
The layoffs will take effect Sept. 30 and courtrooms will close indefinitely on Oct. 3. After the layoffs, which will be based on length of service and seniority, 280 employees will remain – less than half the staff of 3 years ago.
Feinstein said the civil division will bear the brunt of the layoffs and that the public should expect further reductions in courthouse hours.
A clerk in the civil division who might receive a pink slip said she was “shocked that they would actually cut that many people when we are barely functioning with the number of people we have now.” She said good customer service would become more difficult to provide.
“This is just not right,” Feinstein said at the Monday news conference. “The ones who will suffer most are those who need us most.”
Feinstein added: “This is the saddest and most heart-wrenching day in my professional life.”
The layoffs “will for all practical purposes, dismantle this court,” Feinstein said. “Cases will sit on shelves piled high and most will take 5 years to be heard.”
Feinstein, who is Senator Dianne Feinstein’s daughter and a native San Franciscan, described a range of negative effects from the drastic cutbacks, saying they will “significantly harm the Bay Area economy.”
She said dealing with traffic tickets could require hours in line, copies of civil records could take a month, a divorce case that used to take 6 months will linger for up to a year and a half, while other types of civil cases may take up to 5 years to be heard.
Quinton Cutlip, a trial attorney since 1993, said the layoffs and closures were “going to cause a lot of problems for us in San Francisco.”
Cutlip, who works at the Dolan Law Firm, said the austerity measures already taken by the court, such as early closings on Fridays, had not yet affected his practice and that most cases have been receiving trial dates within a year of filing.
“I can’t see 5 years, but the fear is there,” Cutlip said of the prospect of distant trial dates.
Twenty-five of the court’s 63 courtrooms will close: 12 civil trial departments and two complex litigation departments will close, as well as law and motion, case management, juvenile dependency and juvenile traffic departments.
Statutory requirements will preserve resources for criminal cases and civil eviction actions.
“We are judge-rich and staff-poor,” Feinstein said, noting that reduced numbers of bailiffs, clerks and court reporters will be needed when courtrooms are shared by several judges.
The court has 51 judges, who as constitutional officers are protected from layoffs.
Everyone is bracing for the worst, after 11 hearing officers and commissioners were let go last week, said Jenny Yu, an attorney who represents children and parents in the Dependency Department of the Unified Family Court.
Yu said the mood at the juvenile dependency court was “sullen and gloomy,” and that it was tough because “the commissioners had shown a lot of compassion for the families.”
“They are consolidating two courtrooms into one. We already have quite a wait time, so the consolidation, I assume, will make the wait longer,” Yu said.
Feinstein said judges would try to settle cases through earlier participation. She said she encouraged alternative dispute resolution, but that “you have to have a lot of money to do private judging. Our job is to serve those who cannot be served elsewhere.”
Attorney Cutlip said he was open to more pre-trial efforts “to the extent we can,” adding that “it’s tough for plaintiffs. The court is our stick.”
Asked about the prospect of higher filing fees, Cutlip said higher fees would still be cheaper than arbitration and that “we have to do what we can to help the courts.”
This fiscal year’s $13.75 million deficit could be followed next year by a $10 million deficit and more layoffs, said Feinstein, who lamented that the courts are more vulnerable to cuts than the executive or legislative branches because courts lack statutory authority to demand funding.
“My personal speculation is we are going to need our own revenue measures to support the judiciary,” Feinstein said.