Presiding Judge Diana Becton, Contra Costa Superior Court | Jun 01, 2012 | Comments 0
This month, an urgent message from our Presiding Judge, Diana Becton: “Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied”
When Californians need to assert or preserve their rights, settle disputes, or need protection from physical harm, they deserve to have a judicial system that provides meaningful and timely access. The courts are not optional – we are a third branch of government that fulfills the fundamental role of preserving the rule of law. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye observed that “We exist to absolve the evils of the world in a fair manner under the rule of law.” The judicial branch must receive adequate funding in order to carry out its constitutional and statutorily mandated functions.
As budget cuts continue to force the Contra Costa Superior Court to reduce staff and services, there is a real and present danger that access to justice is slowing eroding.
Contra Costa Superior Court has 38 Judges and 8 Commissioners. Our court accepts over 196,000 new filings every year.
Since 2008, like all other courts in California, the Contra Costa Superior Court has faced some challenging times. Our court operations budget has been permanently cut from $63 million to $54.6 million. During the last 3 fiscal years we have experienced permanent budget cuts of $8.4M amounting to 13% of our court operations budget.
The upcoming fiscal year’s budget (FY 2012-13) imposes massive cuts on the Judicial Branch totaling $350 million statewide. In previous years the reductions to the Judicial Branch have been largely offset by fund shifts and additional revenue from court-related fee increases. Locally, Contra Costa Superior Court permanently cut operating costs to build one-time fund reserves that have assisted our court in maintaining critically needed services. Through the use of one-time reserves, we funded critically needed staff positions to maintain the basic level of services to the public for this fiscal year. While the use of these one-time funds has given our court a temporary reprieve, the cuts that will soon hit will strike a blow that will be felt full force in FY 2012-13. For Contra Costa Superior Court, the cuts will mean an additional $4.1 million in permanent cuts, over and above the $8.4 million cut we have already had to absorb since fiscal year 2008-09.
Contra Costa Superior Court recognized early on that the cuts to our budget were permanent reductions. We saw the urgent need to examine ways we could cut our operating costs, and consequently we have:
- Consolidated building leases;
- Reorganized training policies to be more cost effective;
- Renegotiated services and supply contracts, technology-related contracts and the juvenile dependency counsel contract; and
- Reduced legal library expenses.
To increase revenues, our court has:
- Enhanced collection efforts on all court fines and fees;
- Expanded the ability of parties to use credit cards to make payments;
- Enhanced our public website to provide more information for the public regarding self help resources in both English and Spanish;
- Drawn down our fund balance to fund critical temporary staff positions; we have not hired permanent employees, and;
- Participated fully in the Traffic Amnesty Program.
Regrettably, none of these measures were enough to cover all the cuts we have sustained. The distressing reality is that most of the cuts in our operating expenses have had to be absorbed as staff reductions. In FY 2008-09 the court had 440 employees. Over the past three fiscal years, a total of 128 employee positions were eliminated through attrition (66 people) and layoffs (62 people) bringing our staffing level to 312 employees – a reduction of 29% percent in permanent staffing levels.
Current events could actually make matters even worse. If the temporary taxes proposed by the Governor are rejected by the voters, then there will be another $125 million cut to the Judicial Branch.
Contra Costa Superior Court would then have to cut at least an additional $2.1 million. This would mean a reduction to our budget of $6.2 million during fiscal year 2012-2013. If these additional cuts are made, our court will have been cut 23% since FY 2008-09.
Looking behind he numbers, with fewer staff, the court has been forced to cut back on the discretionary services it provides, and we have delayed case processing for all civil, non-urgent family law, and probate cases. What does this mean for the public?
- Health and wellness checks are delayed for Conservatees, a segment of one of our most vulnerable populations;
- Our clerk’s offices are open to the public for far fewer hours;
- We have very limited clerks staffing the windows for service to the pubic;
- Lines are long, and the wait can last for hours;
- As a result of the long lines we have witnessed altercations and unpleasant experiences have occurred while people vie for position to get to the front of the line;
- Child custody mediation sessions are delayed. These are often highly inflammatory cases, where there is an urgency to obtain court orders. Parents must wait more than nine weeks to schedule a mediation session;
- Legal information workshops and legal assistance services have been dramatically reduced for litigants with divorce, child custody, child support, and small claims cases;
- Parties calling our small claims advice line must wait days – and sometimes months for advice;
- Final divorce orders are delayed. Parties have to wait more than four months to get copies of their final divorce orders.
Without the use of our one-time fund reserves, our court would have already shut down vital services to the public. It is only with careful planning regarding the use of our one-time reserves that our court has managed to stay afloat this fiscal year.
The dismal forecast for the coming fiscal year is that we will be forced to drastically reduce even more services to the public. Although we will consult with the public and our justice partners before taking action, our court is now considering:
- Prioritizing criminal and juvenile law cases over all others, resulting in delays in hearing all other case types;
- Closing one of our courthouses, which will mean a great inconvenience and additional cost to litigants, as well as a delay in services.
- Suspending adjudication of all small claims and limited jurisdiction civil cases;
- Eliminating court reporters in civil cases.
Efforts have been made to find new revenue sources to support the courts. The Governor’s proposal to increase civil fees by $50 million may result in a restoration of $1 million to our court’s budget, but Contra Costa Superior Court would still be left with $5.2 million to cut in fiscal year 2012-13.
As the third branch of government, courts have a constitutional responsibility to provide access to justice for all those who seek it. But without the adequate support staff that we cannot process court filings, manage the associated cases, keep the parties informed of their upcoming hearings, or send judgments that have been rendered in a particular case.
Clearly, something must give. Contra Costa Superior Court has endeavored to employ a proactive approach to absorb each of the financial blows we have been dealt – but now we are now faced with more than we can absorb without severely compromising our ability to fulfill our constitutional mandates. Our ability to provide meaningful access to justice when people need it will be diminished. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
- A Budget That Could Cause a Broken Heart – Kiri Torre, Contra Costa County Superior Court CEO, Contra Costa Lawyer, February 1, 2012
- Presiding Judge Diana Becton’s State of the Court presentation, expanding on the looming budget cuts and community outreach programs that are in danger of being eliminated in the process, January 2012
- CCCBA Joins Effort to Support Funding the Courts – news release and photos from the “Stand up for Justice” rally on April 18, 2012 in San Francisco.
Filed Under: President's Message