On several occasions I’ve bemoaned cuts to the state court system. But the recent cuts will devastate the justice system in California. Take what is about to happen in San Francisco as an example:
Forty-one percent of San Francisco Superior Court staff will be laid off, and 40 percent of courtrooms will be closed in September due to California’s latest $150 million in cuts to the statewide judiciary. Those cuts are in addition to the $200 million already slashed earlier this year.(SF Examiner:)
Under Constitutional requirements, criminal cases must be held in a “speedy” manner. That’s important for a number of reasons, and I don’t think the priority for criminal cases would change even if not Constitutionally required. However, that also means that civil cases are going to be almost at a standstill.
At first blush, no big deal, right? Well, perhaps it isn’t that big of a deal if that crazy neighbor down the street can’t get a remedy for his tree related dispute, or if some corporation is left holding the bag for a million bucks or two. But in many cases, these are real people’s lives.
It’s already taking some civil cases nearly two years to move through the system. Divorces, child-custody and other family-law matters will take between eight and 18 months longer to settle after 200 court clerks, court reporters, research attorneys and management employees are no longer on the job and 25 courtrooms have been closed, according to Michael Yuen, the Superior Court’s chief executive officer.
In addition to the family cases, these cuts will make big winners out of big corporations that have nearly unlimited legal budgets don’t mind delaying litigation, and big losers out of plaintiffs who are trying to be compensated for injuries. Don’t plan on getting that big insurance company to speed up the process any time soon. Why should they? They can just hold onto the money and earn the interest while the courts can’t do a damn thing about it.
To be sure, the court system could implement a number of cost-saving workforce reductions and technology improvements that would save millions of dollars. For example, unlike the federal court system, the state courts require filings to be submitted in hard copy rather than electronic filing. This means hundreds of employees in the system are at windows stamping papers that could be processed much more smoothly by computers.
California should be a leader in using technology to reduce court costs and the delays of litigation, and cuts to the system aren’t necessarily antithetical to that goal. However, these cuts go too far, too fast. Some right-wingers may agree with me on vastly different grounds, look no further than that SF Examiner: article quoted above, where they call for voters to do something at the ballot box.
Of course, what would they have voters do? They essentially have two choices, vote for the incumbent Democrats or for the obstinate Republicans and their repeated requests for further cuts. What options are they given.
“Courts are not a luxury,” Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said. “They are at the heart of our democracy. These cuts threaten access to justice for all.”
Democrats attempted to get revenue that would have prevented the last round of cuts, but unfortunately, trying just isn’t good enough in this case. We need revenue now, but until we get it, we have to come up with some way to finance the court system at reasonable levels.