Court workers from throughout the Bay Area expressed frustration at a rally in San Francisco today over a decision by the state judicial oversight council to close state courts once a month, beginning today.

“I’m here today because we’re trying to protect public services, to keep access to the justice system,” said Kim Palmer, a court clerk in Santa Clara County.

“Closing the courts only makes the public suffer,” she said.

Palmer was one of several dozen court clerical workers, court reporters and interpreters, many represented by the Service Employees International Union and other unions, who protested under the hot noontime sun outside the State Building in San Francisco, home to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Among other concerns, the group was demanding “accountability and transparency” from the AOC, a 900-employee agency that carries out the actions of the Judicial Council.

The council in July ordered the closures of every state court on every third Wednesday through June of next year. The decision means that most courts will give workers unpaid furlough days, though individual jurisdictions can decide to allow employees to work when the court is closed.

Contra Costa County allowed some employees in today to do catch-up work, according to the AOC.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, who chairs the Judicial Council, told the State Bar of California on Saturday that the closure decision was “the only rational option” to address the state judicial system’s estimated $414 million deficit. The other alternatives were layoffs and closing court programs, he said.

The closures will save an estimated $94 million, but will also delay cases and postpone new arraignments. At least one judge will remain on call to approve emergency protective orders, warrants and some bail matters.

Many judges have also reportedly agreed to voluntary 5-percent salary givebacks to the courts.

Critics at today’s rally charged that the AOC is not releasing its books to the public, and is withholding money that could be used to offset the deficit to instead implement a new state computer case management system and build new courthouses.

“This is definitely the wrong time for that,” Palmer said.

Lynn Holton, spokeswoman for the Judicial Council and the AOC, said today that the new case management system has been planned for years, and is crucial to allow the various courts to share information.

“The reality is, it will really benefit the public,” Holton said. She added that the council has previously set aside $105 million from the case management computer system and other technology projects in order to help the courts absorb budget reductions.

Holton said the AOC’s budget is 3.7 percent of the $3.5 billion total budget of the state’s judicial branch, or approximately $130 million.

In addition to concerns the closures will negatively impact public safety, the 10 planned closure days will trim between 4 and 5 percent from the yearly salaries of court workers, and further closure days are still a possibility.

Mary Lou Aranguren, a representative of Communications Workers of America who has worked as a court interpreter in Alameda County, also felt the closure decision was unfair.
“They’re picking the pockets of the workers,” she said.

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