State cuts threaten to blunt justice system 

"A sense of confidence in the courts is essential to maintain the fabric of ordered liberty for a free people,” former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger said. The things that “could destroy that confidence and do incalculable damage to society,” he added, include inefficiency and delays in the judicial system and people believing the courts no longer protect their legal rights and keep them safe.

Sadly, it looks as if we are heading into that crisis of confidence.

At a time when the numbers of San Francisco homicides, shooting victims, auto thefts, auto burglaries and domestic violence incidents have increased by double digits — and when there are scores of homicide cases sitting in the District Attorney’s Office awaiting prosecution — The City’s judicial system is about to be gutted.

Forty-one percent of San Francisco Superior Court staff will be laid off, and 40 percent of courtrooms will be closed in September due to California’s latest $150 million in cuts to the statewide judiciary. Those cuts are in addition to the $200 million already slashed earlier this year.

Justice delayed is justice denied, as the saying goes. San Francisco courts will prioritize criminal cases and urgent civil matters such as restraining orders and evictions, but hearings could still take months. As for lower-priority cases, they are out of luck.

It’s already taking some civil cases nearly two years to move through the system. Divorces, child-custody and other family-law matters will take between eight and 18 months longer to settle after 200 court clerks, court reporters, research attorneys and management employees are no longer on the job and 25 courtrooms have been closed, according to Michael Yuen, the Superior Court’s chief executive officer.

The court’s presiding judge, Katherine Feinstein, said, “Justice will be on hiatus.” California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she’s “completely dismayed” and called the cuts “unsustainable.”

Even worse, the judicial system is being dismantled at the same time that plans are under way to release tens of thousands of inmates from state prisons to relieve overcrowding.

Yes, the state has a budget crisis and is forced to make many painful cuts. But it’s hard to imagine what Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic state legislators were thinking when they chose to place public safety on the chopping block. They should have first looked at cutting excessive wages and benefits from the state’s bloated payroll, cutting benefits for undocumented immigrants and privatizing inefficient state services.

“Courts are not a luxury,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “They are at the heart of our democracy. These cuts threaten access to justice for all.”

California’s leaders have assaulted a foundation of our democracy. Fortunately, this crime can ultimately be adjudicated at the ballot box.

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