A series of unprecedented statewide court closures one day each month, while necessary to deal with California’s budget crisis, will also bring unwanted case delays to thousands beginning this week, San Francisco’s presiding superior court judge said today.

“This is not a proud day for us,” Judge James McBride said at a news conference at San Francisco’s civil courthouse. The court is one of several in San Francisco and throughout California that will close this Wednesday, and every third Wednesday through June of next year.

But McBride said the decision, made in July by the California Judicial Council, which oversees the state court system, was “the only rational choice to make,” as opposed to “massive layoffs” of experienced court employees or cuts in court programs.

The closures, the equivalent of a new court holiday during which employees will not be paid, will affect each of the superior courts of California’s 58 counties, as well as the six regional appeals courts and the California Supreme Court.

“We will be, in that week, cramming five days’ work into four,” McBride said.

“The work’s not going to go away,” he said.

The Judicial Council ordered the furlough days to help close the state judicial system’s estimated $414 million deficit, which McBride called a “devastating crash in our budget.”
The closures will save an estimated $94.3 million.

Many state judges, including in San Francisco, have also reportedly agreed to voluntary 5-percent salary givebacks to the courts. Superior court judges in California are paid approximately $179,000 per year.

“The unintended–yet inevitable–symbolism of ‘Closed’ signs on institutions that embody our democratic ideals is yet another tragic indicator of the severity of California’s economic crisis,” said California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George, who chairs the Judicial Council, in remarks to the State Bar of California on Saturday.

In San Francisco, the superior court closures will affect the civil and criminal courts, juvenile courts, drug courts, family law courts, and the Community Justice Center, though the CJC’s social services will remain in operation, according to superior court spokeswoman Ann Donlan.

In addition to case hearings being postponed one day, those newly arrested and awaiting the filing of charges by the district attorney’s office may have to spend an extra day in jail before they are arraigned. Case filing deadlines will also be pushed back one day.

The courts will retain one or two judges to approve emergency stay-away orders, warrants and some bail matters, according to McBride.

The closures are expected to save San Francisco Superior Court $2.6 million in staff, janitorial and security costs for its 565 employees. The court has also implemented a hiring, travel and spending freeze, but has yet to lay off employees or make drastic reductions in services.

“We haven’t hired in six months, we haven’t promoted in six months,” McBride said.
The budget cutbacks have also affected the implementation of statewide computer upgrades and other enhancements.

It’s not yet known whether the monthly closures could be extended beyond 2010.

“I have a feeling that this budget crunch is going to be more than (20)09-10,” McBride speculated. “We might see this in 10-11.”

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