gavel.jpgSan Francisco Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein announced drastic cuts today to the city’s civil court system in response to funding slashes in the current state budget.

Feinstein said 200 of 480 Superior Court employees will be laid off, and 25 of 63 courtrooms in the court system will be closed indefinitely.

Most of the cuts will be in the handling of civil cases in the Civic Center Courthouse and not in criminal cases at the Hall of Justice, which are a priority under state law.
“The civil justice system in San Francisco is collapsing,” Feinstein said.

“We will prioritize criminal, juvenile and other matters that must, by law, be adjudicated within time limits. Beyond that, justice will be neither swift nor accessible,” said Feinstein, who said she was announcing the changes with “deep regret.”

Speaking at a news conference, Feinstein said the city’s court budget is being reduced from its former $98 million to $75 million for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

Twelve out of 15 civil trial departments will be closed, which will mean that most civil lawsuits will face “extraordinarily long delays,” she said.

Clerks’ offices will have reduced hours, but the specific changes in hours not yet been determined she said.

Feinstein said it will now take a year and a half instead of the normal six months to obtain a divorce. That will “obviously leave many families in a very uncomfortable situation,” she said.

Another result will be that paying a traffic ticket or criminal fine at the Hall of Justice could now take hours of standing in line, and obtaining criminal and civil records could take months, she said.

The 200 staff members who are losing their jobs will receive their 60-day layoff notices this week. They include clerical and administrative staff, research attorneys and court commissioners, who conduct hearings on matters such as traffic court cases.

The court’s 51 civil and criminal judges cannot be laid off because they are constitutional officers. But some will be assigned to other duties, such as taking over the traffic court hearings now conducted by commissioners.

“After we downsize this court in the next 60 days, we will be a shell of what we once were,” Feinstein said.

“The governor and the Legislature, in enacting their budget some weeks ago, have left the court with no alternative other than to slash judicial services, lay off our skilled, hard-working employees and compromise the timely delivery of civil justice to the citizens of this county,” she said.

Feinstein said the priorities for the remaining civil trial courtrooms will be eviction cases, cases that face dismissal because they have been pending for nearly five years and certain other cases given a preference under state law.

She said the reason for closing courtrooms is that staffing each courtroom with a clerk, a bailiff and a court reporter is expensive.

“We’re judge-rich but staff-poor,” she said.

Some adjustments in how funding is allocated to the state’s county-based superior courts may be made by the California Judicial Council, the governing body of state courts, at a meeting on Friday.

But Feinstein said she doesn’t expect those possible adjustments to make much difference to the San Francisco Superior Court’s budget shortfall.

“I don’t think anything the Judicial Council does will be sufficient to solve our problem,” she said. “I think we’re too deep in the hole.”

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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