LOS ANGELES — The nation's largest court system is in the midst of a painful budget crisis that has shut down courtrooms and disrupted everything from divorce and custody proceedings to traffic ticket disputes.
The Los Angeles court system has already closed 17 courtrooms and another 50 will be shut down come September unless something is done to find more money. The judge who presides over the system predicts chaos and an unprecedented logjam of civil and family law cases in the worst-case scenario.
The crisis results from the financially troubled state's decision to slash $393 million from state trial courts in the budget this year. The state also decided to close all California courthouses on the third Wednesday of every month.
What has emerged is a hobbled court system that is struggling to serve the public.
Custody hearings, divorce proceedings, small-claims disputes, juvenile dependency matters and civil lawsuits have been delayed amid the courtroom shutdowns in Los Angeles. Drivers who choose to fight traffic tickets now have to wait up to nine months to get a trial started.
Complex civil lawsuits, those typically involving feuding businesses, could really feel the hit. It now takes an average of 16 months for such cases to get resolved, but court officials expect the cuts to bog down these civil matters to the point that they take an average of four years to finish.
"On any given day, 100,000 people go in and out of our courthouses," said Superior Court Judge Charles W. McCoy Jr., who presides over the Los Angeles system. "That's a Rose Bowl full of people."
The criminal courts are immune from the cuts out of concern for public safety.
The Administrative Office of the Courts accuses McCoy of being "overly pessimistic" about the future. Its chief financial officer, Stephen Nash, is opposing McCoy's stopgap proposal to divert $47 million from a courthouse construction fund into the general operating budget to keep courtrooms open.
A hearing scheduled for Friday in San Francisco could decide whether the plan to divert construction funds moves forward.
Nash says there are other ways to avert disaster and a report by his staff holds out hope that the state budgetary crisis will ease, providing new funds for the courts.
"We think you need to be more creative than what Los Angeles is offering," he said. "I'm saying we are going to be able to craft a solution."
Asked what alternatives he proposes, Nash was vague.
"We're going to be looking under every rock at every fund we have. Four months from now, there will be offsets identified," he said.
Communities around the country have had to deal with various levels of cutbacks to government services and courts, but California's situation is especially dire.
Citizens with court business who aren't aware of the Wednesday furloughs are showing up on those days only to find the courts are closed. Those with traffic matters are being diverted to automated call centers, but they can't talk to a person because traffic call staff was laid off.
"Thousands of people needing court services unfortunately are turned away on court closure days," said McCoy.
The Los Angeles courts launched a public awareness campaign this week with large signs posted at courthouses and notices on the court's website to notify people that the system is closed every third Wednesday.
The Los Angeles system has already laid off 329 workers – about 6 percent of its 5,400-person work force. About 500 more jobs are at risk later this year.
Other courts statewide are suffering as well. San Francisco has plans to lay off 122 court employees – 21 percent of the staff – by mid-May unless a solution is found to its budget crisis. The California Supreme Court closed its satellite office in downtown Los Angeles to reduce its spending.
With employees going unpaid on furlough days, Supreme Court Justice Ronald George asked all of the state's 1,700 judges to forgo a day's pay each month. More than 85 percent of the judges agreed, with the money saved going to operation of all courts or back to their own courts.
George has opposed diverting courthouse construction funds because he said such projects would be a boon to the state's hard hit construction industry.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in January proposed restoring $100 million to the courts as part of his budget proposal, but George characterized that funding as uncertain. Much of the money would materialize only if the federal government gives states extra money to help balance their budgets.
McCoy said the Los Angeles court's budgetary shortfall is $133 million which will be permanent each year unless there is an influx of funds from somewhere. He raised the prospect of a cumulative cut of 1,800 people from the 5,400-member work force over two and a half years.
With resulting cutbacks in services, he said, "Confidence in the courts would be lost."
"It's unprecedented," said McCoy. "Even during the Great Depression we did not close down court operations. We kept the courts open."
Eds: CORRECTS name of court official to Stephen Nash, sted Stephen Nathan in grafs 9-13. CORRECTS that San Francisco has plans to lay off staff but has not carried out cuts yet.