Proposed state cuts could bring civil justice in San Mateo County to crawl 

Justice will proceed at a snail’s pace in San Mateo County if $150 million or more in proposed cuts to the state’s judicial system go through, Superior Court officials warn.

Although $150 million of proposed cuts were blocked with Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent budget veto, court officials worry about what will wind up in the revised budget.

For a county court system already racked by years of cutbacks, Presiding Judge Beth Labson Freeman said trial delays could have a tremendous effect on the community. For instance, child-custody and child-support cases could take a year or more to come to hearing, potentially leaving children in jeopardy, she said. Meanwhile, small-claims cases could take two to four years to get to trial.

“I envision civil trials will come to very slow crawls,” Freeman said.

Criminal trials would receive priority due to constitutional guarantees of a speedy trial, but delays could extend jail sentences for defendants who might have otherwise been released sooner, she said.  

And civil-court delays will not only extend the “mental stress of ongoing litigation” for litigants, Freeman said, but also drive up attorney fees as lawyers struggle to keep evidence current.

Meanwhile, wait times at counters and on phones could lengthen, noted Executive Officer of the Court John C. Fitton.

While court officials plan to do everything possible to avoid layoffs to a system already weakened by a 25 percent workforce reduction since 2008, new budget cuts could result in layoffs. After all, Fitton noted, 85 percent of the court’s operating budget is spent on personnel.

He said the cuts could affect “well beyond 30 percent” of the workforce.

“We’ll do all we can do through normal attrition and not filling vacancies, but that only goes so far,” he said. “We already have an inability to keep up with the operational needs of the courts.”

Already, total cuts to the court's baseline budget since 2010-2011 come to nearly $10 million. If the additional cuts went through, that amount would jump to nearly $13 million, Fitton said — quite a sum for an institution with only a $53 million operating budget.

In recent years, the Administrative Office of the Courts saved trial courts from closing by rerouting the courts funds from the state’s case management system and court construction program, said spokesman Philip Carrizosa. Should the latest $150 million of proposed cuts go through, county court officials hope the office will once again come to their rescue.

But such reallocations “would be more difficult now,” spokesman Phillip Carrizosa said.

“We have to pay for construction projects or costs rise on us in long run if they’re delayed, plus we’re already obligated to designers architects and so on,” Carrizosa said. “We can only pull so many rabbits out of the hat.”

nkyriakou@sfexaminer.com

Potential impact

 

  • Family-law matters could take a year or more to come to hearing.
  • Small-claims cases could take two to four years to get to trial.
  • Delays could drive up attorney fees as lawyers struggle to keep evidence current.
  • Wait times at counters and on phones could lengthen.
  • As a last resort, Superior Court employees could be laid off.

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Niko Kyriakou

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

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