State Budget Cuts Wallop San Francisco Courts

By: - July 20, 2011 12:00 am

The judicial system in San Francisco County is preparing to close 25 of its 63 courtrooms and lay off 200 employees, or 40 percent of its staff, as a result of deep budget cuts triggered by California state legislators.

Katherine Feinstein, the court’s presiding judge, says basic judicial responsibilities will be compromised because of what she calls an “unprecedented dismantling” of the system. She estimates that paying tickets could take hours, obtaining court records will take months, and divorces will take at least a year and a half, up from about five months now.

Civil cases in particular — such as business disputes and lawsuits — will be at the bottom of the court’s priority list because of a dramatic rethinking of what the judges will be able to accomplish, according to Feinstein.

“The civil justice system in San Franscisco is collapsing,” Feinstein said in a dire statement posted on the Superior Court of California website . “We will prioritize criminal, juvenile and other matters that must, by law, be adjudicated within time limits. Beyond that, justice will neither be swift nor accessible.”

The court closures in San Francisco County are just the latest on-the-ground consequence of statewide budget cuts ordered by California Governor Jerry Brown and Democratic lawmakers in June. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out , the weeks-old state budget is already resulting in dramatically higher college tuition and a cutback in human services, such as child care.

But the court system is different, many advocates say, because it is a co-equal branch of the government itself. Severe cutbacks can raise constitutional questions, such as those concerning defendants’ right to a speedy trial. Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, has said that statewide budget cuts to the courts, expected to total about million over the next year, are ” incompatible with equal justice for all.” 

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