L.A. County courts face uncertain future

DOWNEY - One of the minor headlines in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times that read "L.A. County court to eliminate more than 500 jobs this week" further confirmed what has been gnawing at Superior Court Judge Philip K. Mautino's insides these past months, if not years.According to the article written by Hailey Branson-Potts, the Los Angeles Superior Court--the largest in the nation--the elimination of the court jobs is aimed at closing a projected $85 million shortfall in FY2013-14. The immediate impact of the 500-job loss will be layoff notices as early as Friday to some 511 court employees, demotions and pay cuts to close to 140 people, and transfers to new locations of 223 people. Court officials have estimated that in all, counting this latest round of job cuts, the court will have lost 1,400 court positions since 2008. This $85 million shortfall has been anticipated, said Mautino, who serves as Superior Court Judge for the Los Padrinos Juvenile Court located in Downey. He has likewise documented the dislocations and the strains these have caused Superior Court personnel, including judges, and the public. In the past, he said, going back to the days of Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneger, the court already sensed a looming fiscal crisis in the state and the court system. (About 30 percent of any cut to the state court system is applied to the L.A. County Superior Court). In view of this, the court for several years made efforts to reduce its expenditures and build up reserves. In January, 2012, when Gov. Brown caused another major cut, Mautino said, "The court made up the loss out of reserves, but sustained a $30 million dollar reduction. We closed 68 courtrooms. We also terminated 350 employees. Among the closures were 12 informal juvenile delinquency courts that handled 65,000 new cases a year. These cases are now unaddressed by the judicial system and handled informally by the Probation Department. The formal juvenile delinquency court handles 33,000 new cases a year, and the judges have been cut from 28 to 22." In May, 2012, Mautino went on, Gov. Brown announced that all courts "must pay their reserves to the state by December, 2012. The L.A. Superior Court had reserves to carry us through [for] two years without further reduction. These reserves are now gone." Among the dire projections looking forward are the closures of courthouses located in San Pedro, Long Beach's Beacon Street, Whittier, Beverly Hills (except one courtroom), Malibu, West Los Angeles, Catalina (except two days a month), Huntington Park, Pomona North, and Kenyon Juvenile in Watts. Mautino further said that the courts have an open filing system. Thus all cases that are filed must be received and processed, no matter what. Criminal cases, though, have priority: all felonies must be tried in 120 days, all misdemeanors in 90 days. At any rate, he said, the vast majority of court closings will be those handling civil cases. "We have until now been serving the 88 communities of Los Angeles County with 26 local full-service courthouses and several other "limited service" ones," Mautino said. "Now we will use a 'hub' system where civil cases will be centralized. Unfortunately, this will result in long commutes for the litigants and extremely long delays in having the cases heard. The last time we had a major tie-up in the civil courts, in the '70s, it took up to five years to hear civil cases." He cited a few 'nerve-wracking' scenarios that should ensue from court closures, from the accustomed 26 'full-service' locations all over: the estimated 18,000 personal injury cases that will be handled at only two courtrooms in Mosk, Los Angeles' main civil courthouse downtown; all probate cases to just four courtrooms, also in Mosk; all traffic cases to Metro courthouses in Los Angeles and one courtroom in Beverly Hills; Small Claims cases to five locations (at a rate of 75 cases a day) in Mosk, Alhambra, Van Nuys, Inglewood, and Downey; the expected 68,000 unlawful detainer cases (landlord-tenant evictions) to be divvied up among Mosk, Pasadena., Long Beach and Santa Monica; Collection cases-40,000 cases to Norwalk, and 40,000 cases to Chatsworth; 'Unlimited' civil cases (above $25,000) to four courtrooms in Mosk; 'Limited' (under $25,000) to one courtroom in Mosk. These courtrooms are to act as master calendar courtrooms and either hear the case themselves or assign them to open courtrooms anywhere in Los Angles County. Examples of the extent of the delays involved in these adjudications: up to five years in 'Unlimited', 'Limited', and Collection cases; and in unlawful detainer cases, although they are heard more quickly, they could take up to a year's wait. Micronomics, Inc., an independent consultant, has estimated the economic loss to the County of Los Angeles of all these negative developments to some $13 billion. In addition, the uncertainty befalling litigants could result in another $15 billion in economic losses, while the fear is that local and state revenue totaling $1.6 billion will be lost. Reporter Branson-Potts reports that the governor, as part of a deal with legislators (the courts are funded by the state), has recently agreed to restore $63 million to the courts in the budget that will take effect July 1. Judge David Wesley, the current presiding judge of the L.A. County Superior Court, is said to have commented, "We are glad that restoration of trial court funding has begun, but these funds [a third of which goes to the Superior Court system] will not stop the cuts in L.A. County Superior Court. It is too little, too late, to stop the awful reductions in access to justice that state funding cuts have brought." He added further that the previous budget cuts simply cannot conjure the depleted resources in order to "continue to provide the same level of services" as before. "The solution to these court problems is fiscal," said Mautino. "We can assume that this downsizing will be with us for a while until substantial fiscal stability is returned to the courts." And divine patience.

********** Published: June 13, 2013 - Volume 12 - Issue 09