Dire situation forecast for San Francisco Superior Court 

Massive layoffs and courtroom closures in San Francisco Superior Court are expected to delay or derail the justice system amid statewide cuts approved by the Legislature this week.

Meanwhile, San Mateo County is disabling its electronic case-filing system, and will see a dramatic slowdown in civil cases, small-claims court and family custody matters, a court official said.

“It’s really, really scary,” said Daniel Dean, a civil attorney who specializes in personal injury cases, and noted that civil cases can already take up to two years to get through the system. “To think about that case getting extended to even a longer period of time, it’s frustrating for the attorney, it’s frustrating for the client and for the court,” Dean said. “Nobody wins in this situation.”

Facing another $150 million in cuts to the judicial branch statewide as part of the recent budget deal negotiated by the governor, San Francisco Superior Court Executive Officer Michael Yuen is moving ahead with plans to lay off 41 percent of the court’s staff and close 40 percent of its courtrooms in September. The state already cut $200 million from the judicial branch’s budget earlier this year.

By mid-July, Yuen expects to start mailing out 200 pink slips to staff such as court clerks, court reporters, research attorneys and management. While the layoffs would take effect in mid-September, the court would close 25 of its 63 courtrooms.

“There’s no other option for us,” Yuen said, “unless something changes dramatically at the state level.”

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye issued a statement saying she was “completely dismayed” about the cuts to the state judicial system. “These cuts are unsustainable and incompatible with equal justice for all,” she said.

In San Francisco, the effect will reach throughout the already overburdened and understaffed court system, especially in civil cases, Yuen said. The court will prioritize criminal cases and “urgent” civil matters such as restraining orders and evictions, but hearings could still take months, Yuen said. But with other civil matters, he said, “it could be years before something is brought to trial.”

The delays are likely to push even more parties toward dispute resolution methods such as mediation or plea bargaining.

On the Peninsula, the situation is not as dire as in San Francisco. San Mateo County Superior Court Presiding Judge Beth Labson Freeman is concerned, but not planning layoffs at this time.

“We’ve had very steep cuts so far,” Freeman said. And while they’ve kept the courtrooms functioning, back-office operations are slow. “We are really struggling to keep up with the filing.” The county’s novel online case-filing system for the public is being shut down today, “because we couldn’t make it cost-neutral,” she said.

At the state level, a $5 billion effort to build 41 new courthouses and a $1.3 billion project for a statewide computer case-management system linking the courts and law enforcement could be effected.

“Right now we’re just in a state of uncertainty,” said Philip Carrizosa, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

aburack@sfexaminer.com

 

Costs to the courts

  • Layoff of 200 court employees, closure of 25 courtrooms in San Francisco
  • Discontinuing of electronic court filing system in San Mateo County
  • Significant delays likely in civil cases
  • Delays also likely throughout the court system, possibly including criminal cases
  • Plans for new courthouses, statewide computer case-management system now uncertain

Sources: San Francisco, San Mateo County superior courts; Administrative Office of the Courts

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