CBJ - July 2009 #02. Budget ax means closed courtrooms, furloughs.

Author:By Nancy McCarthy

California Bar Journal


CBJ - July 2009 #02.

Budget ax means closed courtrooms, furloughs

California Bar Journal July 2009 Budget ax means closed courtrooms, furloughsBy Nancy McCarthyStaff WriterCalifornia courtrooms will close one day a month if the legislature approves a recommendation by its Budget Conference Committee, charged with wielding the budget ax to close a $24 billion deficit.

The committee last month agreed on a series of recommendations that will slice $393 million from the judicial system's budget by raising some fees and delaying some construction and technology projects. The proposal requires legislative approval and the governor's signature to take effect.

"We never thought we'd ever utter the words, 'let's close the courts,'" said Ron Overholt, chief deputy director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

"This is such an unprecedented reduction," he added. "It's very painful. We're about access to justice and building programs for the public and this is not that. This is a feeling of dismantling whatever we've built up."

Although most of the budget-balancing cutbacks are aimed at education, health care and prisons, the judicial system is being hit hard. In addition to reductions in its funding, it faces millions in unfunded costs, such as court-appointed counsel for indigent defense, rent increases, court employee salaries and increases in benefits and retirement.

Closing the courts one day per month is expected to save $102 million. A $10 "security fee," imposed on criminal fines (mostly traffic) will generate $40 million. A $5 court reporter fee will produce $7 million and a $10 "miscellaneous post-judgment fee" is expected to produce $11 million over two years. The latter category originally was meant to fund AB590, a bill to guarantee legal help for the indigent in critical human needs civil cases, but its author, Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, agreed to amend the bill to divert the money for court operations for two years.

Judges also are being asked to pitch in with a 4.6 percent salary cut. Because they are constitutional officers whose salaries are protected, each judge must individually elect to take a cutback. Overholt said voluntary participation by 75 percent of the state's 2,000 judges would save $9 million. Los Angeles Superior Court judges have accepted a 5...

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