(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."