by John Hueston
The Emerging Crisis: Background
Since 2008, the State of California has approved ongoing budget cuts to the judicial branch totaling $652 million. This year alone, the courts lost $350 million from the annual budget, of which the trial courts were assessed $319.3 million. The State reached even further into the judicial branch this year, sweeping $310 million from the Immediate and Critical Needs Account of the court construction fund into the state general fund, and “borrowing” another $440 million from related accounts. In total, the judicial branch has provided over $1.1 billion in budget solutions for fiscal year 2011–12.
Despite these extraordinary successive budget cuts, the legislature is widely expected to raid the judicial branch for funding deficits next year. With courts statewide at or near the brink of widespread closures and catastrophic service cuts, the judicial branch can not again provide an easy “solution” to state budgeting woes.
The answer lies in achieving greater statewide efficiency in court services and in coordinated statewide action to block additional cuts and to locate additional revenue. Our Orange County courts have set a statewide precedent for innovations in efficiency that will permit continued core services with a reduced budget over the near term. But lawyers individually and through bar organizations must continue efforts to prevent additional cutbacks that will eventually jeopardize the viability of even the most efficient courts.
Effects of the Budget Cuts
The budget cuts have undermined trial courts statewide, with some counties critically impacted. San Francisco Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein recently declared that “the civil justice system in San Francisco is collapsing.” San Francisco has announced a plan to close 25 courtrooms, reduce clerks’ hours, and lay off 175 employees in order to meet the budget cuts. Last year alone, the Los Angeles County Superior Court discharged 329 employees and other positions went unfilled. Sacramento Superior Court plans to lay off employees, tap into reserves and drastically cut back services to include a reduction in family court service windows from 10 to 2. In the past several weeks, Ventura County, San Luis Obispo County, San Bernardino County, Lake County, and Nevada County have announced planned court closures in addition to mandatory furloughs and layoffs. These cutbacks and others which must be made to accommodate the cuts will delay hearings and trials, slow settlements, and lead to long lines for the public at court.
What Our Judges Have Planned and Implemented to Mitigate the Impact
Orange County has navigated the crisis without court closures or layoffs through prudent budget management and implementation of efficiency initiatives. Presiding Judge Thomas Borris has spearheaded a number of cost-saving initiatives while upholding his vow not to permit any court closures. The Orange County Superior Court has gradually reduced its workforce by over 200 positions over the last few years without sacrificing service. It has done so by launching technological efficiencies and innovative case processing methods including: 1) a new e-service system permitting electronic filings and electronic service; 2) “smart” Judicial Council forms that can be completed on or offline; 3) online Smart Forms now available for family law and small claims but planned for over 100 different case types next year; 4) self-help centers in most justice centers; 5) a courtroom at the Orange County jail that eliminates the cost of transporting daily over 200 defendants and permits expedited case processing; 6) a voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) in place of costly traditional telephone service.
Orange County Superior Court’s many recent innovations won statewide recognition this year with the unprecedented award of two prestigious Ralph N. Kleps Awards from the Judicial Council of California. Thanks to superlative court leadership over the last several years, Orange County has accrued a $44 million reserve fund. Yet the prospect remains that legislators may raid this fund to assist less financially secure courts. And there are not enough remaining electronic efficiencies to allow even the creative Orange County Superior Court to offset threatened additional budget cuts.
The OCBA’s Efforts to Protect the Courts
The OCBA has supported its judiciary in opposing cuts by lobbying key legislators, debriefing monthly on strategy with the Presiding Judge, and through its participation in the Bench and Bar Coalition, a group focused on creative partnering of judges and leading lawyers to protect the courts.
Most recently, I joined a 17–member statewide Steering Committee for the newly named Open Courts Coalition. The purpose of the Coalition is to present a unified voice from leaders and bar organizations statewide to seek restoration of court funds. The Coalition will also study and recommend efficiency measures and possible additional fee alternatives to be adopted on a statewide basis. We are moving forward on a week-by-week timeline to achieve a concrete legislative proposal within the next two to three months. If this broad-based effort fails at the legislative level, we plan an initiative measure for the statewide ballot that will require a guaranteed level of funding for the courts.
What You Can Do to Help
Take one or more of the following steps today to help mitigate the budget crisis:
1) Most importantly, utilize e-filing and e-service. Currently, only 18% of general civil cases are e-filed in Orange County. E-filing and e-service save not only millions of dollars annually in court administrative costs, but also simplify process and reduce expenses for every type of legal practitioner. Act today to reduce costs for both the courts and your clients by registering for an e-file account at www.occourts.org/directo ry/civil/.
2) Instead of calling to check on the status of a case or details relating to fees, save time and court resources by using the Online Case Access page on the Court’s website.
3) Spread the word that people may now avoid drives to the courthouse by scheduling appointments online and by paying fines, fees, and assessments online or by phone.
4) Take a moment to write your state representatives a short note to express your concerns about the continued vitality of the courts and to urge them to restore diverted funds.
John Hueston is 2011 President of the Orange County Bar Association and a partner with Irell & Manella LLP specializing in white collar criminal defense and business trials. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.