Budget woes are plaguing courts all across the country. While nothing new, it has been a growing problem in recent years and is nearing crisis levels.
Los Angeles Superior Court in California, for instance, has been laying off employees in ever-larger numbers. During my nearly 12 years with the court–from 1991-2002, the court leadership prided itself for never having had to lay off a single employee.
In the past seven or eight years, more than 1,000 employees have been shown to door, and this year might mean pink slips for 500 more.
Given that before I left the court, I was one of about 5,500 employees, some folks might think the court was too fat, so should have shed some of those workers. Yet, during those 12 years, the court was chronically underfunded. Back in those days, the funding came from two sources. The county provided 30% of the total budget and the state was to have provided 70%. The county always came through. The state always fell short. The percentage the state generally coughed up was closer to 40%. That left the court having to go, hat in hand, to the county every few months to try to make up for the state’s shortfall.
Even so, the court managed to meet its mandated obligations–to try or settle all criminal cases within the time limits prescribed by law. Plus it managed to reduce the time it took civil cases from filing to settlement or verdict from 5 years in 1991, to 18 months by the late 1990s, until the state’s 3 strikes law clogged the courts with criminal cases because defendants stopped taking plea agreements, thus squeezing out civil cases. Within a year the time from filing to disposition of civil cases was back up to five years.
That was before the draconian budget cuts of the past several years. The court has closed some of the smaller of what once was 55 court facilities. Its latest strategy is to close even more court locations and to consolidate a number of operations in large population centers. That will mean long trips for court users in some parts of the county and possibly even no court services for financially disadvantaged and/or disabled residents who will find it impossible to travel long distances in the 4,000-square-mile county.
So how long before the court just collapses and will cease to be able to provide even the most basic services. Not long, according to some court officials.
“We tried to do more with less for a while,” one judge is quoted as saying in the Long Beach Press-Telegram newspaper. “This is three or four years in a row of substantial cuts. It’s unsustainable.”
Is this what Grover Norquist meant when he said he goal was for government to be shrunk so small that he and his anti-government cohorts can drown it in a bathtub?
The major problem in California, the largest court system in the country by far, is the central bureaucracy in San Francisco. The state courts lack competent leadership.
I saw steady deterioration as the courts consolidated and became more centralized.