Despite Funding Increase, Santa Clara Court Reduces Hours

SAN JOSE, Calif. – The state court in Santa Clara County is once more cutting public hours for the clerk’s office, shutting its doors at noon on Friday while the clerk’s staff keeps working. The court’s cut in hours comes at a time when the California judiciary budget is expanding modestly and other clerks have returned their offices to full public hours.

The shortened hours announced last week amplify the effect of an earlier cut in 2014, when former head clerk David Yamasaki lopped an hour off the public hours, cutting the closing time from 4 to 3 p.m. At the time, a sign was posted on the courthouse next to the main doors announcing “new temporary hours.”

That sign and those hours remain in place almost three years later. But now the doors close all Friday afternoon in addition to closing early the rest of the week. As with the earlier cut, the staff in the clerk’s office continues to work a full day.

“It’s a disservice to the public,” said Gloria Levyes, 73, after she was turned away on Friday. “I think they need to put more staff on duty to help the public.”

Levyes was attempting to help Adelino Santos, 77, track down a record of his divorce on Friday, but she arrived at 1 p.m.

No sign had yet been posted announcing the new hours, with that task falling to a deputy sheriff who told Leyves and Santos they would have to come back on Monday. The deputy estimated he’d performed the same rigamarole 30 times that afternoon.

Elizabeth Manassau, an attorney who works often at the court, said that even when word spreads about the new hours, the reduction will continue to harm members of the public.

“Friday is the easiest day to get out of work early,” she said. “This is going to hurt lawyers, pro pers and even the staff.”

Santa Clara Superior Court, which has been beset by controversy and allegations it is poorly run in recent years, has recently witnessed an administrative makeover.

After a brutal and public dispute over wages with its own staff – including clerks, janitors and other employees needed to run the court – Yamasaki left last year to take the job of head clerk in Orange County. He was replaced in Santa Clara by Rebecca Fleming, who comes from Stanislaus County. Santa Clara’s presiding judge in 2017, Patricia Lucas, is new as well.

But while the singers have changed, the song is the same.

Speaking through spokesman Benjamin Rada, the court’s leadership said the budget imposed by the state of California and Gov. Jerry Brown has caused the need to restrict hours.

“The reduction of the civil court’s Friday business hours is intended to provide our clerks with uninterrupted time to reduce backlogs,” Rada said.

In other words, the reduced hours won’t save money because the clerks will still be working, but – untroubled by the necessity to handle public requests – the court hopes to cut down its backlog. This type of rationale has prompted the ire of California lawmakers in the past.

“People expect you to keep your doors open,” said Bob Wieckowski, a California state senator representing parts of San Jose, Milpitas and Santa Clara.

Criticizing the closure back in 2014 when cuts in public hours were announced by several courts, he added, “If you’re looking to file your paperwork and you finally get it together and the court is locked, it makes you furious and you think, come on guys: ‘Get it together!’”

San Diego County Superior restored full hours of operation last July, citing a stable budget and predictable fiscal environment.

“It’s been a frustration for us, and I know for people trying to get access to the business, for it to be closed Friday afternoons,” San Diego Presiding Judge Jeffrey Barton told Courthouse News last year. “One of the first things we wanted to do as things got better financially was restore that access.”

So far, Fleming has not made a similar commitment. Instead, court officials in Santa Clara continue to say funding from the state makes it difficult to restore full public access to the courts.

But the court’s funding has gone up steadily from fiscal year 2014-15, when it stood at $103.8 million, to the present projected level of $106.2 million. Gov. Jerry Brown, who has been blamed by many court officials for not fully funding the courts, agreed to give the court system a modest raise during this season’s budget process – increasing the allocation for California’s trial courts by $35.4 million.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye praised Brown’s budget, calling it “prudent.”

“The governor’s proposals would provide funding to offset declines in other revenue, assist with trial court case management systems, and contribute to trial court employee health and retirement benefits costs,” she said.

Among runners who work in various courts in the region, they single out the difficulty and delay of filing and retrieving court documents in San Jose. Union leaders have also placed the court’s fiscal problems in the context of larger spending decisions by the Judicial Council of California and its large and highly paid staff, with both entities operating under the aegis of the chief justice.

During the recent strike involving court workers, for example, local court officials argued that a $5 million deficit was the reason no cost-of-living raises could be paid.

But Ingrid Stewart, president of the Superior Court Professional Employees Association, said the deficits are attributable to financial mismanagement, pointing to the multimillion-dollar construction projects started by California’s court bureaucracy.

Stewart cited construction of the Family Court in San Jose – a new $200 million courthouse built in downtown San Jose – and some of its apparent extravagances like Italian marble, leather couches and expensive art work. She also attacked the high level of pay for the former clerk.

Another area of high spending by the statewide court administration involves expensive software for managing court cases. The court bureaucrats, formerly known as the Court Administrative Office, sunk more than $500 million into a software project that was later junked. In the resulting free-for-all among vendors of privately licensed software, former clerk Yamasaki signed a 2014 contract with Texas-based Tyler Technologies for case management software at a cost of $2.1 million for the software license and another $2.2 million for services going forward.

Pay levels for the court bureaucracy in California have also been the subject of criticism from California’s state auditor and trial court judges. Those high salaries extend to local head clerks who are paid $300,000 to $400,000 per year in California’s bigger courts, when benefits are included. That is substantially higher than the pay for state or federal judges.

Overall, Santa Clara Superior spends about $55 million on its staff. A full $7 million out of that sum is dedicated to executive salaries, according to the California courts website.

With regard to the press, Santa Clara Superior continues to withhold press access to new filings while administrative tasks are completed, in contrast to most courts in the region. The same policy is in place in Orange County where Yamasaki is currently the defendant in a First Amendment action brought in federal court by Courthouse News, with the support of a big group of newspapers including the Los Angeles Times.

In defense of the Santa Clara clerk’s office, spokesman Rada said that even if the court were now to get the requested funding, the work has piled up.

“Due to extreme backlogs increased funding would not immediately resolve workloads but would reduce the need for actions such as reduced public hours,” Rada said. “The court remains hopeful that the governor’s budget will address funding shortfalls.”

Regardless of the culprit, whether it be lawmakers in Sacramento or court executives in San Jose, the public will be the ones who pay.

“It’s a hardship,” Levyes said after she was turned away from the clerk’s office. “But that’s the way it is.”

 

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