Lack of oversight squeezing life out of judicial system 

There were a lot of tearful hugs down at city courtrooms this past week, just the kind of thing you would expect in a place filled with daily legal drama.

But the emotions didn’t belong to the usual lineup of defendants and families, it was hitting the court reporters and clerks who were overwhelmed by an unprecedented round of layoffs triggered by budget cuts courtesy of the governor and state legislators.

If the projections are correct, nearly half of San Francisco’s courtrooms will be shuttered soon, due to a $350 million hit to the state judiciary. Drastic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Think of it as Armageddon in robes.

“This building is in quite a state of distress,” said Patty Dowling, a court reporter for 28 years at the Hall of Justice who was one of the lucky ones to escape a pink slip. “Most of us spend their entire careers in the courthouse and we all know each other, so you can imagine why it’s been so traumatic.”

The killer and a lot of the pain could have been avoided if the lawmakers paid more heed to the law and certainly if they had paid attention to the agency which oversees California’s judicial branch. In many ways it’s a debacle in three parts.

“We don’t have the power to change the revenue stream,” San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein said after announcing the 200 layoffs and the ensuing legal wreckage this week. “If the judiciary is the third branch of government, I don’t understand how the other two branches can put us out of business.’’

It would be fair to say they took a cue from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, which for years now has been frittering away the millions raised from state court fees to a near point of absurdity, while defying all levels of accountability.

The lack of oversight — especially now that the nation’s largest court system is splintering like a broken gavel — is raising questions about the management at the agency, which, in recent years has embarked on a series of costly and questionable projects.

Now that San Francisco has cut 200 judicial jobs, perhaps the AOC would be kind enough to offer some of them employment helping to close the black hole otherwise known as the California Court Case Management System, into which more than $1 billion in tax dollars have been dumped over the years, with almost nothing to show for it.

The proposed computer network to link California’s courts was launched without any business controls, according to a state audit, and so fraught with failures that most of the large court systems in the state have refused to use it.

The computer boondoggle is just the largest of several money-wasting projects in which the AOC has engaged in recent years, a fact that has drawn the ire of some legislators but so far has not resulted in funds being diverted back into the court system.

Among the best known is the plan to build a new $26 million courtroom in tiny Markleeville, the judicial center of Alpine County, a remote outpost with less than 1,700 people. The new courthouse will have its own jury deliberation room, a pretty nice feature since the county averages about one trial per year. And they may consider that a stretch since the court has only two judges and five employees.

Such extravagance is not new to the rulers of the state judicial council who were also criticized last year for spending $8,000 to remove gum from the entrance of a Sacramento courthouse and another $6,000 to replace plants at a courthouse in Merced.

But the biggest problem may not be how it spends money, but how much money it has to spend. Those outside the agency say they have no idea what funds it has in its treasury.

“Do I know how much funding it has available? No,” Feinstein told me. “Does anyone know? No.”

The next time you have to wait six hours to pay for a traffic ticket or find your case put over until 2013, you may find yourself looking for such answers. But don’t ask a judge — you won’t find one.

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Ken Garcia

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