California's State Courts Caught In Budget Crunch

As part of California's budget balancing efforts, the state's courts have been closed the third Monday of each month. Because of overcrowding and understaffing, some people may have to wait for months, even years, for a court date.

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California has been trying to close its staggering deficit with a series of drastic budget cuts, and the pain has been especially deep for people who have business with the state's courts. Since January, courts have been closed one day a month to save money.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates visited the busiest court in Los Angeles, where she saw that saving money is also costing lots of precious time.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The Metropolitan Courthouse near downtown L.A. is instantly recognizable...

Unidentified Man: Next merchant, please.

BATES: ...not by its architecture, but by the signature line that snakes around and around it. Today, it's hot.

Mr. DAVID MARTINEZ(ph): There's no water out here. People are dehydrating.

BATES: David Martinez has been waiting for more than 90 minutes, and he is not happy.

Mr. MARTINEZ: It sucks. It's too damn hot, too damn long. And it's frustrating.

BATES: A lot of people cope by multitasking while they wait. Christina Caldwell(ph) has been in line for two hours.

Ms. CHRISTINA CALDWELL: I've been on a conference call for work and sending emails and Facebooking. Thank God, I would be going nuts if I didn't have my phone. But I think it's ridiculous just to wait this line to get into the courthouse, not to actually do what I need to do.

BATES: Mostly everybody here is trying to settle a traffic ticket. Back when you could get ticket information on the phone, the line was a lot shorter. But budget cuts slashed the jobs of all 20 operators who used to handle that, so now you come and you wait. And when you reach the doors, you wait some more.

Unidentified Man #1: Make sure you (unintelligible) your pockets in the blue bucket. Come through. Sir, one second.

BATES: In the comparative quiet of her chambers, Gail Ruderman Feuer, the supervising judge for this courthouse that has some 9,000 visitors a day, sympathizes with the frustration. She feels it too. And she says the closure days have only worsened an already tough situation.

Judge GAIL RUDERMAN FEUER (Los Angeles Superior Court): Typically in a furlough week and the following week, we have extremely long lines, packed courtrooms and judges working really hard to do the best they can with a lot more people.

BATES: This year alone, says Judge Feuer, the load has increased 30 percent, which makes the wait time for cases much longer before a judge can hear them. She says that means if you're sent here, it could be months or longer before they can contemplate restoring your license.

Judge FEUER: The bottom line is if we keep slashing away at the court budgets, it will be harder and harder for people to have their day in court.

BATES: Part of the problem is the way court budgets are structured. Greg Hurley is with the National Center for State Courts, an association in Northern Virginia that aids court administration. Hurley says there's just not a lot of fat to cut.

Mr. GREG HURLEY (National Center for State Courts): Court budgets are largely based on personnel salaries. So when a court budget is cut, that will be felt by the employees of the court much quicker, and that might be felt as freezing of hiring positions. That might be frozen salaries. It might actually be pay cuts or layoffs.

BATES: And it's not just California. Long lines in courthouses here are a preview of coming attractions in several other states, too, especially ones with big cities.

Eight states have closed their courts at least one day a month, 19 have instituted furloughs, 11 states have laid off court staff, 26 have frozen all new hires. And the cases continue to pile up, especially here in California.

Back outside, while he waits to appeal an expensive traffic ticket, Octavio Vidoy(ph) is contemplating the line he's nowhere near the end of and musing on how the budget cuts have affected him.

Mr. OCTAVIO VIDOY: I always pass by the area, and I see all these people waiting in line, and I say oh, I feel bad for those people. And now I'm one of them.

BATES: And this year, thanks to those budget cuts, he's going to have lots of company.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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