San Francisco courts make drastic cuts


What is in store is plenty of pain. Pain for the public and pain for court workers, who face unprecedented layoffs. Courtrooms will be closed. Clerk's offices will be shuttered. And the hallways will be quiet.

Presiding judge Katherine Feinstein broke the bad news that 25 of 63 courtrooms will close and 200 employees will be laid off.

"The civil division will essentially be out of business," Feinstein said. "The cases will sit on shelves piled high and will not make it into a courtroom for close to five years. It will for all practical purposes dismantle our court. Paying a traffic ticket for a criminal fine at the Hall of Justice will take hours standing in line. There will be fewer clerks there to process your payment. Obtaining a copy of a criminal or civil court record will take months. Obtaining a divorce will take at least a year and a half.

Feinstein says this was the only option. San Francisco's courts face a deficit of almost $14 million. In recent years, the court dipped into its reserves to prevent layoffs, but its reserves have dried up. Now, their budget will be cut by almost $5 million.

In all, the state judiciary's budget will take a $350 million hit this fiscal year.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a written statement that the Judicial Council will continue "to look for ways to search for solutions to alleviate the impact of these unprecedented cuts in the court's budget."

But Feinstein says she has little confidence in the Judicial Council and its Administrative Office of the Courts to manage the budget.

"I'm disappointed with the decisions that have been made by the AOC and Judicial Council; they've not been in the best interest of this court," Feinstein said.

The reform-minded group Alliance of California Judges wants the Judicial Council to scrap its $1.3 billion, glitch-filled computer upgrade and divert that money to the day-to-day running of the courts.

"It's sort of like Nero fiddling his violin or whatever he was fiddling while Rome was burning. Well, Rome is burning and they're fiddling away up there," Alliance of California Judges spokesperson Kay Tsenin said.

The criminal courts will not be affected as much because there are laws that prevent delays in those cases.

Feinstein says not to expect things to improve next year. They are looking at a $10 million deficit. She warns of more cuts in January if the state does not get its projected revenue.

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