Budget cuts endanger courts, justice tells Marin bar

SAN RAFAEL -- The budgetary woes facing California’s already over-burdened court system are having a significant impact on the legal sector throughout the state and it will likely accelerate despite recent stop-gap measures, California Court of Appeal Associate Justice Peter Siggins told members of the Marin County Bar Association.

[caption id="attachment_92278" align="alignleft" width="231"] Peter Siggins (credit: AP)[/caption]

Speaking last week at a luncheon sponsored by the association, Justice Siggins, who serves on the first district Court of Appeal based in San Francisco, described a recession budget that has reduced court support from $3.2 billion to $2.4 billion in 2013. Budget reform recently included tapping reserves, cutting $200 million from the court system’s construction budget and instituting a statutory increase on court fees.

Yet those stop-gap measures are not enough to address “stagnant resources and the growing legal needs of a California population that has increased from 36 million to 38 million," Justice Siggins said.

Additionally, the court operations budget will remain flat, meaning trial courts throughout the state will be forced to go ahead with planned courtroom closures and other service reductions, according to the State Bar of California.

Across the state, 51 facilities have closed and more than 200 court rooms have been shuttered. Coupled with continued court staff reductions since 2001 and an ever-increasing document of court filings, wait times at courts are expected to soar -- litigants can anticipate a 20-month wait from the 8 month briefing to disposition process.  And if a litigant wants to appeal a decision, that process may take two years, according to Justice Siggins.

While debate continues to circulate on the need for increased funding across the state’s judicial branch, allocation of currently available funds also remains a key issue, according to the Marin Bar Association and Justice Siggins. As such, the Judicial Council, the policy-making arm of California’s courts, is embarking on a major restructuring formula of how available funding will be divided up among trial courts across 58 counties, based on workload and the time and staff it takes for 20 different kinds of cases and how many of each type is filed in each county.

The Marin Bar Association said the new funding formula "appears to be fairer.”

The court system is seeking more than $612 million in funding over the next three years. Officials from the Marin Bar Association said that while the state may not be able to afford that much, “it can’t afford to do nothing.”

“Justice Siggins raised a number of serious concerns about the impact that budget cuts have had on the everyday litigants, including longer periods before matters are heard and increasing costs," Marin County Bar Association President Elizabeth Brekhus said.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has said that in order for the budget crisis to be adequately addressed, it will need $161.5 million just to maintain current services while covering increase in employee health and retirement costs.  Without the funding, more court-room closures and furloughed employees are likely, placing further strain on the system, particularly civil courts.  

Since the economic downturn in 2008, the judiciary system as a whole has been forced to cut about $1 billion while simultaneously struggling with a 7.5 million increase in new cases per year.

Justice Siggins served as former Governor Schwarzenegger’s legal affairs secretary. Prior to that, he was employed in the Attorney General’s Office of the California Department of Justice from 1988 to 2003.

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