Federal Court Closure Plan Shipped Out to Sea

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has scrapped plans to close courthouses once a month, its chief judge said.
     Chief U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s announcement came Monday after the first closures of courts in San Francisco, San Jose, Eureka and Oakland.
     While the first three courts closed for the day on May 3, the first Friday of the month, Oakland closed on May 6, the first Monday.
     The court had cited “budget reductions caused by sequestration” as the reason for the furloughs it announced in March. Sequestration reduced funding for the federal judiciary by almost $350 million – a 5 percent cut, the Northern District of California said in a statement.
     Local attorneys had called the decision to shut down the courts “death by a thousand cuts” and “an outrage.”
     Judge Wilken said the court canceled future scheduled closures with “the successful imposition of budge austerity measures and the deferring of previously scheduled technology projects.”
     “The decision to cut back on scheduled technology projects and to implement other significant cost containment measures was appropriate when weighed against the financial hardships on staff caused by furloughs,” according to the court’s statement.
     Wilken said she also considered the impact of furloughs on court customers, counsel and federal agencies, including the offices of the U.S. attorney and public defender.
     “Sequestration has forced many courts and agencies to make really tough choices,” Wilken said, “and tougher choices lie ahead in [fiscal year] 2014. For now, however, we fortunately find ourselves able to cancel the remaining four furlough days in this fiscal year.”
     Court personnel recently told Courthouse News that a plan to transition to mandatory e-filing that was supposed to begin with a pilot program this spring had been delayed until next fall. The Northern District of California already requires e-filing for most documents but case-origination filings had been excluded from the rule. The courts have not yet officially announced changes to e-filing.
     Richard Seabolt, president of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers, had said he worried that the closures represented “a sort of ‘death by a thousand cuts.'”
     The cutbacks in court funding represent “a terrible trend,” said Seabolt, a partner with Duane Morris in San Francisco.
     “I don’t think the U.S. is going to revert to an uncivilized ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation, but I do think the public underestimates the effect the courts have as a backstop for civilized behavior,” Seabolt also said.
     Joseph Alioto, a San Francisco antitrust lawyer, said at the time he considered it an “outrage” that the justice system would be “sacrificed, even [for] a day.”
     “The idea that they should be cutting a minute, even a second, from the administration of justice is an abomination that this country should never have to tolerate,” added Alioto, a son of the late Joseph Alioto, former mayor of San Francisco.

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