gavel.jpgThe San Francisco Superior Court Wednesday announced reduced hours of its clerks’ offices to adjust to deep budget cuts and staff layoffs put in motion last month.

Beginning Oct. 3, all criminal and civil clerks’ offices will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., court Chief Executive Officer Michael Yuen announced.

The change will be a reduction of one hour per day in the clerks’ offices of the criminal and traffic divisions at the Hall of Justice. Those offices have previously been open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The civil clerks’ office hours at the court’s Civic Center Courthouse were previously decreased to the 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule and thus will remain the same.

The changes will not go into effect until Oct. 3 because state law requires a 60-day notice.

The schedule change is part of a drastic restructuring of the court announced July 18 by Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein in response to funding slashes in the current state budget.

Twenty-five civil courtrooms, out of a total of 63 civil and criminal courtrooms, will be closed indefinitely, and 200 of the court’s 480 employees–or 40 percent–are being laid off.

The closed courtrooms include 14 out of 17 civil trial departments, leaving only three courtrooms open for civil trials and causing delays of up to five years in some cases, Yuen said.

Criminal courtrooms at the Hall of Justice will remain in operation because criminal cases are a priority under state law.

“The court regrets having to limit access to our clerks’ offices and close these busy civil departments,” Yuen said. “But we simply will not have enough staff to handle the filings or staff the judges on any given day.

“Employees will need time to process and file documents that pile up due to the lack of adequate staffing–and even then, backlogged filings will persist for many months and civil cases will languish for up to five years,” Yuen said.

The court currently has a deficit of $6.2 million out of a $65 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, Yuen said.

The amount is less than the $13.75 million deficit estimated by Feinstein last month; the difference is caused by $1.5 million more than expected in state funding, among other factors, Yuen said.

But Yuen said the revised deficit is not reduced enough to avert the changes required by an expected cumulative budget gap of $20.4 million over the next three years, resulting from budget measures already taken by the state Legislature, even if no further funding cuts are made.

The layoffs of 40 percent of the court’s staff should save $17 million of that amount over three years, said court spokeswoman Ann Donlan.

“Looking at the multi-year process, if we don’t have any more cuts, we hope we won’t have to lay off any more employees,” Donlan said.

Yuen said, “We must prepare for what’s coming–fee increases that expire in 2013, the sunset of one-time temporary fund shifts that do not address the structural deficit that has built up over four years of state budget cuts, and wishful increases in state revenue that are unlikely to materialize amid this enduring economic downturn.”

The 200 workers who are losing their jobs include clerical and administrative staff, research attorneys and 11 of the court’s 12 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 hearings now conducted by commissioners, Feinstein said last month.

The San Francisco court is undergoing deeper cuts than some other superior courts in the state partly because it previously dipped into reserve funds to avoid layoffs and is no longer able to do so.

An audit of the court conducted by the state Judicial Council last year also noted some financial management problems, which court officials said they would correct.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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