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Shortages, delays expected under still strained court budget

COAST CITIES — After five years of devastating cuts, the California Judicial Branch has received a marginal raise in state funds for the new fiscal year. 

Yet downsized staff, courtroom closures, case delays, and other deficiencies are expected to remain throughout the San Diego Superior Court system, including the North County Division at the Vista Courthouse, until pre-recession funding levels are restored.

About half a billion dollars in state funding has been cut from California courts’ budgets over the previous five years due to General Fund deficits from the economic downturn.

The state’s 2013-14 budget, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed on June 27, restores $60 million to trial courts funding.

Though it will receive a modest increase this year, San Diego Superior Court’s budget has been cut by over $30 million during the previous five years, according to Karen Dalton, public affairs officer for the county courts.

Because of the budget cuts, the San Diego Superior Court has eliminated more than 330 court employees, closed or restructured operations in over 20 courtrooms, as well as cut down phone and business counter service hours during that time, she said.

The Vista courthouse, which serves all of North County, closed its entire probate department and one of its two juvenile dependency courtrooms in 2012, and cases that would have been heard at those locations have been added to the downtown courthouse’s load. Forty nine court employee positions were eliminated at the North County branch as well.

With these reductions, judges and court staff must handle more cases on the same schedule.

As a result, the backlog of cases in the county has been growing, according to Dalton.

The backlog of cases and crowded court schedules have caused extensive delays for court appearances and ruling entries, according to a recent report by the SDCBA (San Diego County Bar Association).

The report, the “State of the Judiciary in San Diego County,” chronicles the impact of the court budget cuts on clients and attorneys in the county. Released on June 19, it is the first State of the Judiciary report released by SDCBA.

“Despite the diligence and conscientious attempts of San Diego’s court leadership to continue to deliver court services with drastically reduced resources at their disposal…local courts — long the shining example statewide of judicial efficiency — have now been hobbled to such an extent that extensive delays, the closure of courtrooms, the unavailability of essential court services, and long wait times now characterize those court systems instead,” the report stated.

According to SDCBA’s report, these days it can take a minimum of seven months to contest a traffic ticket, up to ten weeks to schedule a first appointment with Family Law Services for difficult custody issues, and at least eight weeks for the issuance of misdemeanor warrants for failure to comply with a court order in San Diego county courts. Furthermore, processing a default judgment, which used to take two weeks, can now take more than six months.

The report highlights that civil cases have been hit hardest by the court delays in San Diego.

“The sheer volume of cases that each civil judge is seeing right now has rapidly increased,” said SDCBA President-Elect Jon Williams, who is the primary author of the report. “There has been a complete slowdown of civil cases.”

Routine motions in civil cases are scheduled six to eight months out, according to SDCBA’s report.

Dalton confirmed that civil disputes have experienced the greatest delays in San Diego.

“Criminal, juvenile and family law cases typically have mandatory case processing and hearing requirements, such as speedy trial statutes, that mandate specific activities and time frames. Similar mandates do not exist in the civil areas,” she said.

For clients, delays in court and having to travel to courthouses that are farther away can mean greater legal expenses and longer waits for judgments to be made and enforced.

For some cases, clients can have to pay for the added time it takes for their attorneys to travel back and forth from the downtown courthouse or re-familiarize themselves with protracted cases.

Furthermore, delays in court mean that clients have to wait longer for resolutions, a wait which can cause profit losses for businesses and added strife for families, according to the report.

“Any sort of delay just puts (business owners) in a holding pattern from using that time and resources from investing in their businesses,” said Williams.

Jeffrey Lacy, President of the North County Bar Association, said that delayed resolutions in family law, “unfortunately increases the tension between families and ultimately the children are the ones that are harmed.”

For attorneys, lengthy cases result in juggling more cases and clients over a longer period of time, said Lacy.

He said that he feels an ethical duty not to charge clients for the time he spends reviewing a file after an extensive court delay that is out of the client’s control.

“Myself and other attorneys I know do potentially loose income if they are making that choice,” he said.

He also said that it is challenging for attorneys to maintain court records and schedule court appearances with the lack of court reporters and calendar clerks.

However, both Williams and Lacy repeatedly said that the courthouse cuts were unavoidable given the Superior Court’s slashed funds, and that the court has managing as well as possible.

“The court system is doing the best it can,” said Lacy. “They’ve had to face some incredibly difficult decisions with these budget cuts.”

“(San Diego’s courts) are operating in a course of extreme scarcity,” said Williams.

They said that San Diego courts are unable to return to their previous levels of efficiency until funding is fully restored to pre-recession amounts.

This year, San Diego Superior Court’s operating budget was raised to about $170 million, according to Dalton.

But the modest increase does not restore San Diego courts’ budget even back to the 2011-12’s $193 million, and as a result many of the court cuts and closures throughout the county will remain.

Williams said that this year’s budget increase is, “certainly not a cure all of budget cuts for five years.”

Dalton said that the court system is looking to avoid further staff reductions and working on identifying cases that can benefit from mediation and/or arbitration so they can be resolved sooner.

Yet, more financial strains are on the horizon for California courts. As of the 2014-15 fiscal year starting July 1, 2014, trial courts will no longer be able to maintain reserves greater than one percent of annual appropriations.

These reserve funds have previously been used to finance large projects, including technology upgrades, as well as expenditures during low revenue years in Sam Diego, said Dalton.

“We continue to desperately need new case management systems in the criminal, traffic and family law areas, but the reserve limitations after June 2014 will make planning for such systems extremely difficult,” she said.

“You’re seeing water spill over the top of the dam. The dam hasn’t busted, yet,” Williams said of San Diego’s court’s financial predicament.

Both he and Lacy expressed that there is a lack of community outreach to legislators and politicians about the funding for the judiciary branch.

They said that their efforts lobbying with other bar associations and encouraging their clients to campaign for more court funding has only gone so far.

“There is no constituency that is banging on the door and saying, ‘We need our courts to be funded,’” Williams said.

“Are we able to operate at a level where everybody gets their day in court without a torrential delay?” he added. “I would say to you right now we’re not even near that.”