As many California lawmakers herald a budget proposal that appears to restore fiscal stability to the state, some court officials have a different message: It's not enough.
Under Gov. Jerry Brown's blueprint, the court system would be compelled to transfer $200 million from a special construction fund to keep its operating budget at the same level as last year. The budget would also have trial courts draw their reserves down to 1 percent, depleting them to a level that critics say leaves the courts vulnerable.
While judicial officials have praised Brown for not cutting more deeply, they argue that another year of diminished funding will impede their ability to swiftly handle matters before the court.
Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, agrees. She will seek to restore some of the money that has been cut as California has sparred with soaring deficits, an effort she has unsuccessfully taken up in recent years.
"We've been cutting and slashing the justice system funding for several years now to the point where we're closing courtroom doors all around the state, and it's impossible to administer justice when you don't have adequate courtrooms and adequate judges and adequate staffing," Evans said.
Years of general fund cutbacks about $1.2 billion total since 2008, including $475 million from trial courts have already forced courts to recalibrate. While California does not keep comprehensive statewide data on the impact of court funding, a county-by-county breakdown in a judicial branch website reveals a litany of reduced hours, vacant positions, shuttered courthouses and eliminated programs for handling domestic violence and family law.
The Administrative Office of the Courts estimated in October that trial courts statewide were operating with about 250 fewer judicial officers a category that encompasses justices, judges, commissioners and referees than needed.
As of last July, Los Angeles County saw the number of available positions shrink by nearly 900, or about 16 percent of its total workforce; Sacramento County has shed 230 employees over the last five years, just under 27 percent.
The consequences of annual cuts have resembled "triage in an emergency room," said Nancy Drabble, chief executive officer for Consumer Attorneys of California, a group that advocates for plaintiffs' lawyers.
This would mark the fifth straight year courts have weathered cuts by redirecting money from the special construction fund to court operations, according to the Administrative Officer of the Courts. The state Judicial Council voted last week to indefinitely suspend four courthouse construction projects, citing concerns about the upcoming fiscal year. Planned courthouse projects in Sacramento County, Nevada County, Los Angeles County and Fresno County will face delays.
Another dip into the construction fund would force counties to delay renovations to unsafe or dilapidated buildings in addition to pushing back plans to build new courthouses in counties that need the additional space, Drabble said.
"We're not saying we object, because obviously the first priority has to be to serve the public and keep the doors open, but it's just such an easy target," she said.
Because California's Penal Code mandates that criminal cases get precedence, civil cases have borne the brunt of pared-back staffing and hours. That has forced courts to choose which types of cases are priorities and which can wait. San Joaquin County stopped setting hearings for small-claims cases last year.
David S. Wesley, the presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, said in a statement last week that Brown's budget would continue the "dismantling of the Los Angeles justice system" and force Los Angeles to proceed with plans to close 10 courthouses.
In a follow-up email to The Bee, Wesley wrote that dwindling staff and courtrooms meant "justice will no doubt be impacted. People will travel further for services, police agencies and victims of crimes will have to travel further to go to court."
Laurie Earl, the presiding judge for the Sacramento Superior Court, estimated last week that the court in California's capital city is about eight weeks behind on processing civil complaints. As of Dec. 31, there was a backlog of 2,775 complaints.
Californians fighting eviction have also been affected. Those tenants, who have a five-day window in which to file a response, are increasingly facing long lines at courthouses and the prospect of appearing before a judge who hasn't received the paperwork detailing their case.
"Three years ago we could be pretty well confident the judge would have overnight to read the papers," said Bill Kennedy, managing attorney at the nonprofit Legal Services of Northern California. "But now, when we show up in court and the judge is just reading or being given the papers as we come in, I think justice is affected."
Family law cases have faced delays. The wait in Shasta County for a court-appointed mediator in child custody and visitation disputes can stretch to three or four months, said Melissa Fowler-Bradley, the executive officer for the county's Superior Court.
Courthouse closures are also putting some people hours away from the nearest court. In sprawling San Bernadino County, the closest open courthouse for some far-flung residents is 175 miles away. Cutbacks have forced Shasta County to keep its only satellite court, in the unincorporated mountain town of Burney, open only one day a month. Fowler-Bradley worried that people may be reluctant to make the drive two hours as a round trip in good weather to the main courthouse in Redding.
"I'm afraid they're not getting access to justice in this county," she said.
The Brown administration argues that courts have had a relatively smooth passage through the fiscal turbulence of the last few years. Despite a sharply curtailed general fund contribution, the judicial system has not seen a steep falloff in its operating budget.
"I think you have to look at it in the broader context of what's been going on in the budget in recent years, especially when the economy has hammered state revenues," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.
But the worst could be yet to come. So far, the judicial system has offset shrinking general fund dollars by raising fees, draining reserves and siphoning money from the construction fund. If Brown's recommendations are implemented for fiscal 2013-2014, officials say, by 2014-2015 the courts will have exhausted their alternatives.
"It's the fifth year of reductions to the judicial branch," Earl said. "We're just a small piece of that state funding pie, but somewhere along the line something's got to give."