Courts & Corrections

Your Day in Court? Get in Line.

As San Francisco County closes more than a third of its courts, local lawyers are trying to find ways to raise more revenue.
by | October 2011
 

San Francisco is a romantic spot, but it’s turning into a terrible place to get divorced.

Like other California counties, San Francisco County has seen its judicial budget cut by nearly a fourth over the past three years. As a result, the San Francisco Superior Court is closing 25 of its 63 courtrooms and laying off 40 percent of the staff as of Oct. 3.

The upshot is that uncontested divorces, which have traditionally taken six months to become final, are going to drag on for a year and a half. Already frustratingly long lines to pay traffic tickets or pick up official records are going to grow a lot longer. Things are going to be especially bad in civil cases, because of the court’s need to shift resources to the criminal side due to statutory and constitutional rights to a speedy trial.

Slower proceedings for bigger cases mean that defendants have every reason to stall. “We’re hearing that defendants are refusing to settle on the grounds that cases are going to take so long to try,” says Bill Hebert, a San Francisco attorney who is president of the State Bar of California. “They’re telling plaintiffs, ‘You’re just going to have to wait for your money.’”

Judicial budget cuts are affecting every county in the state. But the situation is exceptionally grim in San Francisco. As the financial picture darkened, judges and administrators there -- like many other public finance managers -- tried their best to avoid layoffs, hoping that an improved economy would eventually make such measures unnecessary. Last year, $10 million reserve fund was drained down to as low as $200,000 and scheduled layoffs of 122 workers were put off.

Now, however, the court is laying off 80 more workers than it would have last year. Since it’s clear that the bad times are here to stay, at least for a while, San Francisco’s court system is cutting deeply all at once to rebuild its depleted reserve fund -- and in hopes of avoiding additional cuts over the next couple of years.

Nearly every state has cut its judicial budget in recent years -- even though the judiciary represents no more than 3 percent of general funds in most states. In California, the courts have taken disproportionate hits compared to executive branch agencies. They just don’t have the lobbying muscle or constituent support of programs such as education and health.

But lawyers, at least in San Francisco, recognize the importance of the courts. Local attorneys are trying to come up with ways the court can charge fees that would stay in the city, rather than being sent up to Sacramento. Such a move will face high hurdles, including the need for supermajority voter approval.

Even if new fees are approved, it won’t happen in time to keep the lines at the courthouse from looking like some horrific parody of the DMV. “This is just going to be a disaster for people who need access to the courts,” Hebert says.

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