Like every court system in California, San Mateo County felt the pinch of budget cuts this year, and it’s enough to rattle administrators. In January, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed cuts that would leave the court with a crippling $4.5 million deficit.
Barring a May revision of that proposal, the court would have to adjust by eliminating five commissioners — the assistants appointed by judges to hear testimony and help resolve issues — and nearly two dozen other employees in June. It also would consolidate traffic, small-claims and unlawful detainer cases, and chop out three trial departments.
Administrators worry that a dwindling staff will prevent the court from adequately serving the public. With 120 fewer employees than it had in 2007, and roughly $11 million less in its coffers, San Mateo County Superior Court is already riding a perilously thin line. Court Executive Officer John Fitton said it could get much worse.
“The impacts of these cuts have been severe,” Fitton said. “They’re really unprecedented for trial courts.”
Fitton hastens to add that San Mateo County has done everything in its power to stanch the bleeding, from reducing court reporter services, to closing the clerk’s office at 2 p.m. every day, to leaning on technology — new efficiencies like the automated traffic calendar allow people to handle some court matters online. But the court still doesn’t have enough resources to handle every complaint that comes in, let alone the estimated 650-hour paperwork crunch.
Right now the court’s civil, probate, and family law departments have 30,000 documents scanned in the system and waiting to be filed away — a chore that’s eating up staff time, Fitton said.
He and other legal experts worry that if they can’t fix the backlog, motions filed on time might be tabled anyway if they don’t make it to a judge’s desk before the hearing date.
That means a lot of hearings would have to be rescheduled, which would clog the system even more. And it’s only one in a slew of potential stumbling blocks. If the county lays off five commissioners, judges would pick up the slack by handling civil contempt cases, small-claims cases and restraining orders, which would chew up time that could be delegated to larger cases — the San Bruno blast suit against PG&E being one example.
Traffic court also has suffered.
“We used to have a courtwide standard where we’d pick up the phone on the third ring,” Fitton said. “Now it can take as long as 30 to 40 minutes to get to a person. That’s a significant delay.”
These setbacks would hurt everyone, but they’d hit the little guy hardest — a person trying to clear a drunken driving charge to get a job might be kept in limbo, for instance. Even people with solid cases might lose out if they don’t have the purse strings to hire a mediation service such as JAMS or ADR Services Inc. at $400 to $500 an hour.
San Mateo County has long been hailed for having an excellent court system, with five venues serving one of California’s geographically smallest counties. That might change in a heartbeat.