LOS ANGELES (CN) – As the biggest trial court in California fights for a way to deal with enormous layoffs of 1,000 people in the next three years, Presiding Judge Lee Edmon said the leaders of California’s judiciary should stop hoping the Legislature will bail them out and make hard decisions on priorities that will keep courts open.
“I certainly think we should make the case to the Legislature that the courts need to be adequately funded,” said Edmon. “The difficulty I see is that the legislature has a substantially reduced pool of resources to give out and I don’t see that getting better any time soon. I think they’re in a very difficult position.”
A budget memo sent out to the judges and staff in Los Angeles put the size of the cuts into context.
“The $2 billion annual base budget for the California trial courts has been permanently reduced by nearly $600 million annually 30% of trial court funding lost to the State’s budget crisis,” said the memo.
Los Angeles has managed to avoid immediate and widespread layoffs this year partly through work last year taking its staff down by more than 450 people as well as convincing the Legislature to put courtroom operations ahead of technology projects and new court buildings. “We will continue to make the argument in the branch that the top priority for branch spending should be trial court operations,” said Edmon.
San Francisco, by contrast, is facing an immediate crisis, with catastrophic layoffs planned for next month, representing 40% of the court’s staff. Those layoffs have received substantial press coverage.
Ron Overholt, interim director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, suggested last week that the publicity would lead to a better financial package from the Legislature. “Given the kind of attention that has been raised,” said Overholt, “the Legislature will bear fruit next year.”
A trial judge labeled that statement “delusional” and “an insult to the Legislature.”
The administrative office has been under pressure from legislators and trial judges for at least a year over questionable spending decisions. They include retroactive pay raises in a time of financial crisis, top-loaded, luxurious pension policies for the bureaucratic brass and, the most controversial of them all, an ambitious IT project with an estimated price tag of nearly $2 billion that is widely derided as cumbersome, fault-ridden and already near obsolescence.
A July press release from the Judicial Council said the IT project was being halted for a year.
“A transfer of $56.4 million from the California Court Case Management System … will result in a one-year delay in deployment activities for that program,” said the press release.
That statement was walked back on Friday. An administrative office official said the project is in fact going ahead at the cost of another $74 million, in addition to hundreds of millions already spent.
“It was originally referred to as the one-year pause,” said program director Mark Moore. “We’re now relabeling it. It’s not necessarily a one-year pause.”
In Los Angeles, Edmon concluded that, “In the end, I believe the Judicial Council in fact basically said, ‘Lets give $56 million to the trial courts but that doesn’t necessarily mean a one year delay.'”
The Los Angeles court system has the heft of a county with a population of 10 million, almost three times bigger than any other county in California. Its court system is similarly huge, with roughly 600 judges and an equally big set of courts and staff.
The budget memo for Los Angeles predicts a deficit of $85 million for the current year. “Anticipating new cuts in state funding in the coming year, we project that our deficit will grow to $161 million in fiscal year 2012-13, and to $204 million in fiscal year 2013-14,” said the memo.
Those numbers translate directly into fewer jobs, with layoffs of 600 people in 2011 and another 400 in 2014.
Edmon is meeting all day on Tuesday with her budget working group to develop a plan that will reduce the court’s workload and bring the court’s operations within those numbers.
“We’re looking at how we can downsize the court’s operations,” she said. “This year we’re exploring our options in connection with the legislative mandates in order to determine what work we don’t have to continue to do.”
Edmon said the court will be considering calling in fewer jurors and employing new technology.
“I think that there are certain aspects of technology that could make our lives easier,” she said. “A year or so ago we made some technological advances in our jury systems. A lot of the way we now communicate with jurors is all done electronically. And now they just created a system where jurors can sign up for jury services on their smart phones.”
The court is also relying on its reserves to stay afloat through the next three years.
“We look at that as bridge financing. Under the plan we have, we will end up where the discretionary balance is $93 million,” Edmon said. However, the judiciary’s central bureaucracy requires that Los Angeles retain a reserve fund balance of $21 million, so the court can only use $72 million of that fund.
“We will be using that over the next three years in addition to doing all the layoffs we’re having to do. It permits us to delay the layoffs into next year. By the time we get to fiscal year 2013-14, we will have spent that reserve down to $15 million which is less than the requirement,” Edmon said, adding that $15 million is less than court employee salaries for one month.
The budget memo sent throughout the court conceded that those who sought to be judges did not sign on for the task of cutting the court back to its core. Nevertheless, that is the task that lays before them.
“Over the past decade, perhaps the most turbulent time the Los Angeles Superior Court has seen, we have been severely tested,” the memo concludes. “The current budget crisis may be our greatest challenge ever. One way or another, together we will continue to make justice available to those who need it.”