Early Court Hours Bring Criticism|for Bad Planning and Bad Policy

     (CN) – As California’s economy spiraled down four years ago, the governor began lopping huge chunks of money off the $4 billion court budget. Year after year, he kept cutting until it was left an emaciated version of its former self, at roughly $3 billion.
     In January with signs of an economic rebound, California’s chief justice stood on her office steps in Sacramento, flanked by legislators and judges, with a crowd of reporters in attendance, to announce a “blueprint” that would restore $1.2 billion to the court budget over three years. The powerful speaker of the state Senate was at her side and endorsed her goal.
     The campaign brought reliance from many local courts that were counting on the new money, burning through their reserves as they hoped and waited. Others saw the writing on the governor’s wall.
     Then in June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a budget that allocated a modest $160 million increase for the courts, far short of the goals in the blueprint from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. Within weeks, a group of courts began announcing cuts in public hours starting in November.
     They said the budget made them do it.
     But locking out the public after two or three o’clock in the afternoon does not save money, a point widely conceded, because the staff continues to work until the end of the day.
     It does, however, have a heavy impact on the public, those who must go to the courthouse in the middle of the day and stand in long lines to pay fines, file papers and, as one judge put it, “do their business.”
     And the public’s pain is felt by legislators.
     “People expect you to keep your doors open,” said Bob Wieckowski, chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “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!'”
     “This is something we shouldn’t skimp on,” said the Democrat from Fremont. “Courts should be open as until 5pm. Period.”
     The courts that will close early beginning next month are sprinkled around the state, from Humboldt, Plumas and Sierra in the north to Glenn, Yolo and Kings in the Central Valley to Amador in the Sierra Nevada to Santa Barbara along the coast. They join a few other courts in the state that were already closing early, including San Diego and Ventura.
     Of the new group, Santa Clara County Superior in the Silicon Valley is the biggest and most urban. It is led by Presiding Judge Brian Walsh, who was also the recent head of the presiding judges committee and recent member of the statewide Judicial Council that decides on rules and legislative lobbying.
     
‘Not a Direct Saving of Money’
     Defending Santa Clara’s move to short hours, head clerk David Yamasaki said, “This was one of the last decisions we could have made in how to balance our budget. The public is affected adversely but we simply do not have sufficient funding. The only thing we have left is to reduce service.”
     He conceded it would not save money.
     “It’s not a direct savings of money as much as it gives us a greater capacity to deal with the cases we have coming in,” said Yamasaki. “We have a backlog we’re trying to stave off from getting worse.”
     The Santa Clara County court’s efficiency has dropped over the last year to the point where only 50 percent of the new cases are currently being processed on the day they are filed. Closing early is not expected to lighten that load, because cutting public hours does not affect the volume of cases filed across the counter during the short hours or dropped off.
     The notion that closing early will help the staff catch up with their work drew a skeptical reaction from officials in courts that intend to keep their doors open all day.
     “The other counties I’m assuming think that if you shorten the counter hours then you can take those hours and have people process the paperwork,” said Sacramento’s Presiding Judge Robert Hight. “You turn out at the same place, understaffed.”
     Hight speaks from experience.
     Sacramento is an example of a court where in past years employees fell far behind, sometimes taking two months to process new cases, a delay openly declared on the court’s website. When Hight took over leadership of the court in January, the court began giving press and public access to about 90 percent of new filings on the same day they were filed, with cases then processed very quickly.
     That dramatic turnaround was accomplished within last year’s skimpy 2013-14 budget, during the same period that lobbyists for the chief justice were pushing for a quarter-billion-dollar bump in the current 2014-15 budget .
     Another big California court, Alameda County Superior in Oakland, is actually expanding its public hours. The clerk’s office had been closing mid-afternoon but recently put the “open” sign out for the entire work day.
     “We’re back to 4:30 hours,” said Presiding Judge Winifred Younge Smith. She said that a return to full hours was one of her court’s main priorities this year. “It has one of the most immediate impacts on the public,” said the judge.
     She said short hours are hard on the people of Oakland and the surrounding region.
     “It made it much more difficult for people who work to get to court,” she said. “If you know you have all day, you can plan. It affects the public’s ability to access justice and take care of their business.”
     Smith said the ability to restore full hours was the result of “good management and good planning.”
     Alameda also handles its paperwork with a high rate of efficiency, tallying a 85 percent to 90 percent efficiency rate in both processing the new cases and making them available to the press and public on the day they are filed. Like Hight and other judges interviewed, Smith was careful to avoid criticizing other courts.
     She said each court faces a unique set of circumstances.
     
‘Wasn’t Going to Happen’
     The landscape of events behind the stunted hours is the five-year drought in public funding that has affected all 58 county courts in California, from the desert courts in Imperial County along the Mexican border to the high forest courts in Yreka next to Oregon. But they reacted in very different ways.
     Some, such as Santa Clara Superior, used their reserve funds to tide them over. That strategy works if the bad years are followed by good years. It works if the chief justice’s blueprint works, and the money flows again.
     But the budgetary drought has continued.
     “We’ve burned through our reserves,” said Yamasaki in Santa Clara. “Our hope in asking for additional funding from the state was to get to a treading water number of $263 million. But it never came. The net effect for our court was negative $600,000.”
     Other courts, such as Los Angeles, the biggest court in California and in the United States, figured a return to flush times was not in the cards. Over the last two years, Los Angeles Superior made harsh cuts to its operations, laying off roughly 1,000 workers and closing a number of small courthouses.
     The result is that the court is now in good shape and is not required to make any staff cuts this year. Throughout the budget crisis, Los Angeles Superior has kept its doors open to the public the entire day, in contrast to those that next month plan to put out the “closed” sign early.
     “They didn’t get the money that they had hoped, and maybe inappropriately planned on getting, based on statements made by the chief justice and the Legislature,” said Los Angeles Judge Robert Dukes. “They didn’t do what our court and others did over the last couple of years, by planning and doing some severe cuts, and those that kept hoping that they wouldn’t have to do that are now caught at the tail end.”
     From the viewpoint of the executive branch, court officials were dreaming if they thought a quarter-billion dollars would flow back into the budget.
     “It was fairly clear from early on that that level of an increase wasn’t going to happen in the confines of this year’s budget,” said H.D. Palmer, deputy director in the governor’s Department of Finance. “They needed to begin to figure out ways to operationalize those reductions. I don’t think it came as a surprise.”
     In fact, Palmer argued, the courts did receive a generous increase in funds, if not as much as hoped for.
     He pointed to the extra $40 million for courthouse construction, $31 million for the trial courts and roughly $43 million for court employees benefits, among other amounts. “At the end of the day,” he said in the language of public finance, “the budget the governor signed contained some significant augmentations.”
     
Bankers Hours
     Similar to the “bankers hours” kept by banks for most of the last century, limited hours at the clerk’s counter have their greatest effect on those who stand on the outside of it.
     Mary Beaudrow, president of Legal Secretaries Inc., said the early hours would be most strongly felt by those who cannot afford a lawyer, often referred to as “pro pers,” abbreviated Latin for those who act on behalf of themselves.
     “More than anything, it really hurts the pro per out there who doesn’t know how to file a case or how the court system works,” said Beaudrow. “They’re the ones who are really harmed in this situation because they start 10 steps backward.”
     “The attorneys have no idea,” she added. “They’re preparing their documents thinking they have several more hours, then they find out they’re late to file.”
     Filing in time is the particular concern of those who make a living by running documents to the court and navigating the myriad local rules tied to those filings.
     “With these large cases we deal with, there’s a lot of money on the line and if a filing isn’t completed timely the whole case can go out the window,” said Steve Vann with attorney service OneLegal.
     “The court that is open at 3 p.m. today may be closing at noon tomorrow,” Vann added. “When they have these early closures it’s just one more hurdle in a whole list that we have to deal with.”
     While the short hours do not save money, they do put pressure on legislators whose constituents suddenly find the clerk’s office closed.
     Wieckowski, heading the Assembly Judiciary Committee, was a bankruptcy attorney and sympathizes with the courts’ financial woes.
     “They’re all trying to juggle their budget. I hate to put them in that position,” he said. “I would rather have the $336 million to fund them. Our simplistic idea of access to justice starts at the counter window and if that window is closed, there’s no access to justice. Obviously, I have a lot of work to do.”
     With the early hours about to go into effect in November, the state’s Judicial Council did not see that the issue merited discussion at its Tuesday’s meeting. The abbreviated hours were placed on the council agenda as an “information only” item that does not need debate or a vote.
     
Long Lines and Lawn Chairs
     In Sacramento, the judges are keenly aware of the issues raised by crowding and long lines in the clerk’s office.
     The court received some notoriety a few years ago when its former leaders decided to install software called the Court Case Management System, now defunct. In the transition, lines at the filing counter grew and grew. People who had business in the court would bring lawn chairs to sit in line. The media got a hold of the issue and TV cameras showed up to film the unbecoming chaos.
     That experience has informed the court’s actions since then.
     Judge Hight said shortening business hours in the Sacramento courthouse is unthinkable. “We never contemplated closing early,” said Hight.
     “We had extremely long lines at family and at civil, but we were able to move people around so we had enough people to staff the civil, criminal, family law counters, because we had a belief that that’s our first interaction with the public and the public deserves the right to be serviced,” said the judge.
     “Some people can’t get here until after 4 p.m.,” Hight concluded. “Our belief is that you should have the counter hours as broad and as long as possible.”

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