San Francisco Superior Court readies for closures, layoffs amid California budget woes 

Think the wheels of justice move slowly now? Recent state budget proposals could bring to a crawl everything from civil suits and traffic ticket challenges to protective orders and murder prosecutions.

The latest proposal, though vetoed last week by Gov. Jerry Brown, envisioned $150 million in cuts to the state judicial system. That prompted San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein to warn that the court faces the possible closure of 25 of its 63 courtrooms, and layoffs of 200 of its 484 employees.

"Justice will be on hiatus," she said.

Without a new proposal, Brown’s veto has thrown the state budget into limbo. Meanwhile, San Francisco Superior Court officials are preparing to issue layoff notices that could take effect in mid-September.

"If something dramatic changes ... we would be more than happy to pull those back," court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said. Layoffs could include court clerks, court reporters, research attorneys and management. Elected judges are exempt.

State courts also faced huge cuts last year. San Francisco prepared to lay off 122 workers before state courts tapped funds allocated for building new courthouses and legislators raised fines and fees. But this time, Donlan warned, no internal funds are available, and it’s unknown whether legislators will again raise fines and fees.

Adrienne Williams, who heads a union representing office and court clerks, said employees of the already understaffed courthouses are worried. "It really does sadden a lot of the workers, that one, we are going to lose jobs, and two, that we won’t be able to provide the services that the public is using currently," she said.

Michael Yuen, court executive officer in San Francisco, said closures and layoffs would probably affect civil cases first, with delays also likely in probate, family law, juvenile delinquency and traffic court. Criminal cases would be given priority because of constitutional due process requirements, but the impact on the court would be systemwide, he said.

District Attorney George Gascón said the cuts would be "devastating."

"As it is, we do not have enough courtroom space," he said. "We have cases that are being delayed, sometimes years. If you look at our homicide backlog, where cases are four, five, six years old, a closure of any courts is going to further impact this."

On Wednesday, 122 presiding judges and court executive officers warned Brown and legislators of longer lines, processing backlogs, a shortage of interpreters and the possibility that domestic violence victims won’t receive timely protective orders.

And with each passing day of budget stalemate, Yuen said, San Francisco courts lose an additional $230,000. "We have to plan for the worst now, and hold out for that glimmer of hope," he said.

But that glimmer may be fading.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who chairs the senate’s budget and fiscal review committee, said Tuesday that he feared additional cuts. While the majority would likely come from education, he said, courts could also be further affected.

"My hope is they go no deeper," Leno said.

aburack@sfexaminer.com

 

SF Superior Court cost-cutting measures

  • Legislature raised court fees, penalties and assessments statewide in 2008
  • Hiring freeze, travel restrictions for court staff and halt on new capital projects since April 2009
  • Mandatory monthly furlough day for court employees and voluntary salary waivers for state judges, September 2009 to June 2010
  • Voluntary furlough days for court employees, May 2009 to December 2010
  • Limited service days on Fridays (clerk’s offices close every Friday at noon) since January
  • Mandatory furlough days for court employees, January through June
  • Voluntary furlough days for judges, April through December
  • Now facing mid-September layoffs of 200 workers and closure of 25 courtrooms (date undetermined)

Sources: San Francisco Superior Court, State Administrative Office of the Courts

 


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