LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County court system began handing out layoff notices Friday as plunging budgets set in motion major reductions.
Officials said the cutbacks in the court system will affect 431 employees and 56 courtrooms in a county that's home to nearly 10 million people.
Targeted employees were given layoff notices and packages of information on how to get health insurance and other benefits. The workers were initially placed on two-weeks administrative leave to get their affairs in order.
Union representatives stood outside a downtown courthouse wearing stickers that said, "Justice has left the building."
The court administration, meanwhile, said a job fair will be organized to help them find work.
Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon said it was one of the saddest days in the history of the Los Angeles Superior Court. She expressed concerns for the people laid off as well as consumers who will face a slowdown in resolving civil cases.
"Could we be heading toward five year delays getting to trial?" Edmon asked. "I certainly think so."
Friday began with a report that a courthouse employee had been found dead on a loading dock. Edmon said she was notified of the death of Ray Nemo, a court facilitator who had been laid off previously but brought back to work and was not scheduled to be laid off again. But he may not have known that before he died of a heart attack.
Another employee reported having heart palpitations and an ambulance was called. But Edmon said the woman was not one of those targeted in the layoffs.
"It is a stressful time for our court system," Edmon said.
The layoffs and pay cuts are Los Angeles' answer to the statewide budget crisis that has lawmakers in Sacramento debating how to reduce a $16 billion deficit. Other counties are making cuts but their numbers are dwarfed by Los Angeles County with its 4,700 employees and its need to absorb $100 million in funding cuts. Edmon said 70 million in cuts were made earlier and the new cutbacks will amount to $30 million in savings.
Each county is handling its court funding cuts differently.
In Fresno County, seven branch courthouses in outlying areas are being closed. Residents in those rural areas will have to travel longer distances to file lawsuits.
In Ventura County, as in Los Angeles County, the services of court reporters are being eliminated for civil trials. Litigants will have to hire their own court stenographers and in some cases judges are being told they may have to take notes on their own cases rather than rely on a printed record.
"We are laying off people who are committed to serving the public," Edmon said. "It is a terrible loss both to these dedicated employees and to the public."
The union representing state and municipal employees – the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – called Friday's action a "freeze on justice in Los Angeles" and warned that the county would experience "an end to timely justice" with cases being delayed for years, particularly in civil courts
Friday's action calls for laying off 157 people, while hundreds more will be given lower-level positions, reduced to part-time work or transferred to new jobs because their old ones have been eliminated.
Edmon and Assistant Presiding Judge David Wesley expect further cuts and said the new cuts are permanent.
"There will be more cuts next year and their impacts will be severe," Wesley said.
The current plan eliminates the county's innovative juvenile traffic courts, which will result in the closure of 11 courtrooms. Court reporters will no longer be available for civil trials and 110 management, clerical and administrative positions outside courtrooms are being cut. These are likely to mean longer lines at windows where people go to pay traffic tickets or file civil lawsuits.
A special temporary restraining order center will be operated by three judges in order to handle the need for emergency orders that can't wait. Other judges will be assigned to achieve case settlements.
"We will have no trouble keeping our judicial officers busy," Edmon said. But she acknowledged they will be working longer hours with reduced staff.
Although most of the 56 courtrooms affected countywide are civil courts, 24 criminal courtrooms also are being closed. If criminal courtrooms need to be reactivated to provide defendants with speedy trials, more civil courts would be closed, Edmon said.
The executive officer and clerk of the court, John A. Clarke, suggested the court is being swept up in "catastrophic changes" at the state level.
"The commitment of our judicial officers and staff to preserve access to justice is unwavering," he said. "But our ability to follow through on that commitment may soon be exhausted."