San Francisco Superior Court Faces Massive Layoffs
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
Big cuts in California's budget are bringing painful changes to the state's legal system, especially to the Superior Court in San Francisco. The court is shutting down 40 percent of its courtrooms and laying off the people who work in them.
From member station KQED in San Francisco, Peter Jon Shuler reports.
PETER JON SHULER: California's new budget cuts $350 million in funding for the judicial system statewide. San Francisco Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein says over the last few years, the court has gone through unpaid furloughs, a hiring freeze and has spent down all its reserves.
KATHERINE FEINSTEIN: And now we're broke. And we're left with one painful, unprecedented option, which is a reduction in service that is so severe that it will, for all practical purposes, dismantle our court.
JON SHULER: The cuts are expected to slow civil cases to a virtual standstill. People will have to wait in line for hours just to pay a fine. Obtaining a divorce will go from about six months to a year and a half. And, Judge Feinstein says, all but a handful of civil cases could wait up to five years to get a court date.
FEINSTEIN: For San Franciscans, justice will be barely be accessible and will certainly not be swift.
JON SHULER: To illustrate the extent of the crisis, Court Executive Michael Yuen says back in 2008, the court's budget stood at $98 million.
MICHAEL YUEN: In the current year, we're down to $88 million. With this reduction, obviously we're looking at going down to 75 million.
JON SHULER: Trial attorneys are predicting the cuts will have a disastrous impact on the courts and the civil service system more generally.
Robert Nelson is a partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in San Francisco.
ROBERT NELSON: The problem is, as a trial lawyer, is getting your case to trial. And if this court is unable to get cases to trial, then essentially there's no justice and the civil justice system fails.
JON SHULER: The Superior Court says there should be no impact on criminal cases. But even there, cuts in the court clerk's office will slow down the processing of paperwork.
Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein says the layoffs mean more than just a slower administering of justice.
FEINSTEIN: When our democracy was founded, the judicial branch was supposed to be a co-equal branch of government. And when you have the other two branches coming in and gutting it, one must question whether that premise remains true.
JON SHULER: California's legislature and Governor Jerry Brown know the cuts are painful, but necessary given the state's tight finances. Layoff notices are currently being sent out to 200 court personnel. Twenty-five of San Francisco's 63 courtrooms will be shuttered by the end of September.
For NPR News, I'm Peter Jon Shuler in San Francisco.
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