All of a sudden, we are closing in on the end of 2012, and it has been a whirlwind of a year. On December 31, 2012, my two-year term as Presiding Judge will come to an end, and the term of the new Presiding Judge, Hon. Barry P. Goode, begins. I know and have worked side-by-side with Judge Goode, and I am confident that he will be an outstanding Presiding Judge during his term of office.
In January, Judge Richard Arnason (ret.) was honored with an official sendoff after 49 years of faithful service to this court. There was an outpouring of affection and respect from the bench, court staff, longtime friends and the legal community as Judge Arnason was given a final salute. Known affectionately as “The Dean”, Judge Arnason was one of California’s longest serving judges. He will be sorely missed. Judge Harlan Grossman retired after 21 years of devoted service, and Judge Peter Berger hung up his robe after 18 years of dedicated service to the court.
In the ever-changing landscape of the court, there have been some bright spots this year. First, some good news:
In February, the Governor appointed former Public Defender Terri Mockler to our bench. Judge Mockler is currently assigned to the Walnut Creek Court, and in January she will be assigned to the Richmond Court. In May, we welcomed our newest bench officer, the Honorable Judy Johnson, former Executive Director of the State Bar. Judge Johnson is currently assigned to the Richmond Court, and will relocate to the Pittsburg Court in January.
And now for the challenges.
Over the course of the past three fiscal years, the court had to absorb nearly $7.5 million in permanent budget cuts – a combination of statewide cuts to the judicial branch and unfunded cost increases. The court’s fear that more cuts were on the horizon was confirmed with the publication of the Governor’s revised budget in May, and with the news that the state would soon sweep the court reserves (our savings account).
The result? The court had to reduce the FY 12-13 budget by a staggering additional $7.1 million, and over $8 million was “swept” from the court’s reserves. The reserves which the court managed to painstakingly accumulate over a number of years, allowed the court to continue to provide access to justice during lean times.
Considering the magnitude of the current cuts, it was immediately clear that the court could no longer maintain its current public service levels. In August 2012, the court held a series of meetings to inform our court staff, justice partners, elected officials, and the public of the proposal to implement very drastic budget reductions. The meetings culminated with a public hearing on August 21, 2012. Thereafter, following consideration of public comment, the court adopted a modified budget reduction plan. In summary, the court made the difficult decision to close a branch court, close additional courtrooms in the remaining facilities, including most of the courtrooms in which commissioners preside, to add the commissioners’ workload to the judges existing workload, to consolidate court calendars, and to reduce services to the public as follows:
- Effective November 1, 2012: The existing Family Law courtroom at the Arnason Justice Center in Pittsburg will be shut down, and the cases will be reassigned from a commissioner to the existing Family Law departments in Martinez. East County residents will have to travel to Martinez to have their Family Law matters considered. Among other things, it will take longer to get a divorce or a decision on child custody.
- Effective December 3, 2012: The Child Support courtroom in Martinez will be closed on December 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th and from December 17th through 31st (open December 6th and December 10th through 14th).
- Effective January 2, 2013: the Child Support calendar will resume, however it will be closed on Mondays each week. This change will reduce this calendar to the level of service provided by the federal grant which funds this program. This will result in delays in obtaining child support orders.
- Effective December 3, 2012: The Juvenile Law courtroom in Pittsburg will be shut down and the cases will be reassigned to a judge in Martinez. In addition, the Juvenile Law courtroom in Richmond will be shut down. East County and West County residents will have to travel to Martinez to have their Juvenile Law matters heard.
- Effective January 2, 2013: One Civil Fast Track department will close and the Civil Discovery/ Ex Parte courtroom in Martinez will be shut down. Cases now heard in the Civil Fast Track department, and matters now heard by the Civil Discovery commissioner will be heard by the remaining Martinez Civil Fast Track departments. This will result in increased calendar congestion and will cause delays in hearings, trials, court decisions, and orders.
- Effective January 2, 2013: The Concord Courthouse will close its doors to the public. Traffic cases will be transferred to the Walnut Creek Court. The remaining case types (Small Claims, Unlawful Detainer, Domestic Violence, and Civil Harassment) will be transferred to Martinez. Residents who use the Concord Courthouse will have to travel to new court locations as described above.
- Effective January 2, 2013: The use of the Walnut Creek Courthouse will change significantly. Only traffic cases from Concord and Walnut Creek will be heard in Walnut Creek. All Criminal, Small Claims, Unlawful Detainer, Domestic Violence, and Civil Harassment cases from the Walnut Creek Court will be transferred to Martinez. Residents who use the Walnut Creek Courthouse (except for Traffic hearings) will have to travel to Martinez to have their matters heard.
- Effective January 2, 2013: Two commissioners will hear Traffic cases in Pittsburg, Richmond, and Walnut Creek.
- Effective January 2, 2013: Court reporting services will be eliminated in general in Civil, Family Law, and Probate courtrooms. Details will be provided in the Notice of Availability posted to the court’s website at cc-courts.org.
- Effective January 2, 2013: Specialty courts such as Juvenile Night Court, Juvenile and Adult Drug Court, Domestic Violence Court, Homeless Court, Behavioral Mental Health Court, and Elder Court, may be consolidated or eliminated to allow the judges to focus on mandated calendars.
- Effective November 12, 2012: Clerk’s offices will only be open to the public from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm (reduced from 8:00 am – 3:00 pm.) Exceptions will be made for temporary restraining orders and other urgent matters that address the safety of individuals. The reduced hours will provide staff with critically needed time to process the increasing backlog of unprocessed court papers.
- Effective November 12, 2012: Self Help services will be only be available from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm (reduced from 8:00 am to 3:00 pm) in the Spinetta Family Law Courthouse in Martinez, and the number of workshops for self-represented litigants will be reduced.
- Effective January 2, 2013: The number of Traffic Night Court calendars now held in four branch court locations will be reduced, possibly to a single calendar. The schedule for this calendar will be announced as additional information becomes available.
- Effective January 2, 2013: The number of Small Claims Night Court calendars now held in four branch court locations will be reduced to a single calendar, one night per month, and only in Martinez. The schedule for this calendar will be announced as information becomes available.
Currently, the California State Department of Finance projects that the economic picture in California is likely to remain uncertain through the end of Fiscal Year 2014-15, and there are a wide range of statewide, national, and international variables that can influence this projection.
We cannot predict the impact of this uncertainty upon our court. However, we do know that 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 slowly eroding.
Regardless of these dire times, the Court remains dedicated to maintaining basic services and mitigating the impact of the cuts on the public. As I have previously stated, “We look forward to restoring these services as soon as the State allots sufficient money to the judicial branch that we may do so. The full and fair administration of justice requires no less”.
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