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January 14, 2013

Everyday Litigants Will Suffer with Court Funding Provided in Gov. Brown's Proposed Budget

Kabateck.jpgBy Brian S. Kabateck '89, Guest Alumni Blogger

In a mix of news both bad and slightly less bad, the governor's proposed 2013-14 state budget slashes $200 million in court construction funding but mostly maintains the status quo for court operations already battered by years of deep cuts. The governor's finance team is to be commended for avoiding deep operational cuts that would have devastated California's courts. However, the loss of $200 million in construction money needed to maintain the state's aging court infrastructure amounts to more bad news for the justice system. Even though the budget proposal appeared to spare the courts from a fresh round of deep operational cuts for 2013-14, the system is already reeling from $1.2 billion in General Fund cuts over the past five years.

At first blush, the governor's new budget appears to maintain the status quo, but with the courts absorbing more than $1 billion in cuts over the past five years, the status quo isn't acceptable. The status quo has been a disaster. A prime example is in Los Angeles County, which during the current fiscal year has been forced to make upwards of $85 million in cuts to programs that have resulted in the ongoing closure of 10 full courthouses scattered around the region and other operational changes that have the net effect of creating long lines for basic services and slowing the administration of justice. The old axiom is justice delayed is justice denied. Well, lately there has been a lot of justice being denied all over the state.

The cuts of recent years have hit especially hard at some of the state's most vulnerable citizens - women, children, the poor, veterans, the disabled - who utilize family law and other specialty-court operations that have been among the hardest hit by years of budgetary slashing. We are facing a crisis. Courts are an important safety net for society, protecting our most vulnerable. This crisis is about real people who need help solving real problems. Even the most basic functions like paying a ticket or resolving a rental dispute have been turned into unbelievable inconveniences that cost average citizens both time and money. Staffing cuts at many courthouses have led to swelling lines and frayed tempers as the public has tried to tap the most basic services. In Los Angeles, people queued up to settle traffic tickets have in some instances been turned away at day's end and told to come back the next day. Such problems stand to grow even worse as the county grapples with more than $150 million in court cuts in the last couple years. Already, 10 courthouses in Los Angeles County are in the process of being shut down and services are increasingly being centralized in a single courthouse, threatening to make a bad situation even worse.

The impacts of funding cuts have rippled up and down the state. Operating hours have been slashed in 30 counties, and 70 percent of the courts have instituted furloughs that have slowed down services. Self-help and family-law courts are typically among the first services reduced. Court officials say that the cases hit hardest by slowdowns have involved foreclosure and rental disputes and individuals seeking restraining orders in a bid to escape the cycle of violence. In San Francisco, shrinking court resources for complex cases have meant that some terminally ill mesothelioma patients seeking justice in asbestos cases are in a race to begin trial before their lives end.

To stem the courts' tide of red ink, a number of counties have followed Los Angeles in shutting whole courthouses down. Such closures put particular pressure on the poor and disabled who rely on public transit to reach distant branches after their neighborhood courthouse has been shuttered. For instance, the closure of the superior court in Chino means that residents who rely on the bus must resort to a 90-minute ride featuring a daunting 57 stops to reach the nearest courthouse in Rancho Cucamonga.

It can mean working men and women must take an entire day off from work, taking a hit on their weekly paycheck, having to come up with child-care arrangements and other real-world impacts. And for women facing situations of domestic violence seeking restraining orders, it can mean more time and more hassles to secure help. Some may simply give up. The cuts could mean delayed civil-court hearings on holding potentially violent people with severe mental health problems.

Further cuts to the court construction funds, meanwhile, come on the heels of years of siphoning money away from construction efforts needed to maintain the state's court infrastructure, one of the most sprawling networks of courthouse facilities in the world. By continually pulling money out of the construction accounts, we're borrowing from our future to pay for today. The governor's budget also calls for yet another increase in court user fees to support the ongoing workload of the trial courts. Details of exactly what that would mean were unclear last week, but any fee increases would come on top of $116 million in fee hikes already enacted by the state during the 2010-11 and 2012-13 budget years. Nearly all of those prior fee increases had their greatest impact on the state's civil trial courts, raising the economic barriers to the public's access to the courts.

Our justice system is a cornerstone of this state. While we all are investing in our futures by teaching and mentoring new lawyers, we also need to step up, do the right thing and keep our court system from crumbling.

Brian S. Kabateck is the founding and managing partner of Kabateck Brown Kellner LLP and president of the Consumer Attorneys of California.