LOS ANGELES — A famous judge sits in a cold, shuttered courtroom pushing papers while the California Supreme Court chief justice fumes over the state of court funding.
“I hear people on television all the time saying, ‘We’ll have our day in court,’” said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. “And I nudge my husband and say, ‘Don’t they know there aren’t any courts anymore?’”
The statement is an exaggeration, but it emphasizes frustration by those in the court system over budget cuts that have closed courtrooms around the state, halted new construction, including Nevada County’s, and taken a toll on the administration of justice.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, focusing heavily on education with scant mention of courts, provided disappointment to judges as it proposed taking $200 million from court construction funds to postpone additional court cuts after hundreds of millions of dollars were previously slashed.
Ten courthouses — from Beverly Hills to Pomona — are set to close in Los Angeles County alone and seven will close in Fresno County. Some people with legal problems in San Bernardino and Humboldt Counties may have to drive hours to find a courtroom. Once they get there they will probably wait in long lines.
“This has been a slow motion train wreck since 2008,” said Judge Lance Ito, the judge who oversaw the murder trial of O.J. Simpson and now shuttles between courts after his courtroom was closed in the latest budget cutbacks.
He can be found either filling in for a sick judge or reviewing petitions from life-term prisoners in a courtroom stripped of chairs in the jury box and witness stand. His robe is in the closet until he’s called to help in another court.
“I have no staff, no bailiff, no court reporter and I have to persuade friendly clerks to enter minute orders,” Ito said. “There’s no heat in here and the furniture has been cannibalized.”
Sen. Noreen Evans, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants the governor to give back more than $150 million that was deducted from the judicial budget in 2010-1011.
“The buildings which house justice are still crumbling and we have no further resources to rebalance the scales of justice,” said Evans, D-Santa Rosa.
On Thursday, the Judicial Council voted to indefinitely delay court construction in Sacramento, Nevada, Los Angeles and Fresno counties while funds are spent to replace a Long Beach courthouse damaged by an earthquake.
Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer defended the proposed budget — which needs to be approved by the Legislature — saying courts must be weighed against other needs, including the blind, disabled and senior citizens. Brown’s top priority is education and he’s restraining other areas of spending.
“Compared to other parts of the state budget, the state has found a way to keep these court budgets operating at a stable level,” said Palmer.
Advocates for more court funding point to a 2011 study that showed courts failed victims after budget cuts that began with the recession. It documented a man’s fight against eviction that took so long he died before he could return to his home. It also cited the case of an abused San Diego woman who slept in her car outside a courthouse to get a restraining order because she couldn’t get a hearing due to reduced court hours.
“These are crisis issues,” said Cantil-Sakauye, citing domestic violence, landlord-tenant matters and child custody cases. “Everyone expects courts to be there when they need them. When you need us, you need us desperately and immediately.”
Most of those in family court represent themselves, she said, and they need help filling out required paperwork. But the helpers are often no longer there.
Business disputes also go unresolved, the report said, and victims of fraudulent foreclosures are unable to get into court.
“People look at the courts from the vantage point of two functions: criminal and civil jury trials,” said Brian Kabateck, president of Consumer Attorneys of California. “People are forgetting all the other services.”
In Los Angeles County, more than 400 court employees were laid off, an alternative juvenile court system that allowed youngsters to settle infractions without criminal proceedings was slashed and civil courtrooms were left without most of their court reporters, forcing lawyers to hire their own stenographers.
Cantil-Sakauye had been optimistic the governor would stick to a pledge not to cut another $125 million from courts if voters approved temporary sales and income tax hikes on the November ballot. But he recommended the cut after voters approved his measure.
Part of Brown’s budget proposes new court fees, such as $50 to fight a traffic ticket by mail and $1 per page for photocopying documents. That suggestion gets a firm thumbs down from the chief justice who calls it “pay for play.”
There is an undertone of anger among those who are tasked with implementing drastic cuts.
“We are witnessing the dismantling of the Los Angeles justice system,” said Los Angeles Assistant presiding Judge David Wesley who has already closed 60 courtrooms and is overseeing plans to close 10 court houses, halt construction projects and order more staff layoffs.
Ito envisions a time when jobs will be restored and courts reopened fully staffed. He wants to leave the bench in three or four years thanking jurors for their service.
“I’d hate to end my career sitting here doing paperwork,” he said.