California state budget cuts cause delays, cuts in county court system

11:53 PM, Nov 16, 2012   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, Calif.  - If you remember the old version, or have seen the new "People's Court", you know courtroom drama can be very entertaining.

Unfortunately, normal courtrooms aren't as exciting. Even worse, in Northern California, massive budget cuts are making it close to impossible to get anything done at all.

Sacramento resident Mark Gold, whose divorce was relatively simple, took more than a year to get finalized.

A glimpse inside Sacramento County's Family Law courthouse, where Gold needed to go to finalize his divorce, explains the delay in the system.

"You're looking around and you're seeing all of these windows, the help windows, and they're all shut," Gold said. "It's very frustrating."

California budget cuts have forced county courts, which are funded by the state, to let go of employees and cut services.

On a walking tour with Judge Jamie Roman, he pointed out massive lines inside the Family Courthouse, and people's frustration with delays.

"We've had some come back as many as five days in a row just to file their paperwork," Roman explained.

Much of that is because so many clerk windows have been closed and those are the places someone would go to file paperwork.

"We've had as many as 10 windows, then 7, now we're down to 2," Roman said.

"You think you're coming up next, and then they close all the windows and tell you to come back tomorrow," Sacramento resident Sheila Tellez said.

In the Sacramento courthouse main building, the civil division is so backed up that the paperwork, which would be processed immediately, now takes up to a month.

Sacramento County's presiding judge Honorable Laurie Earl said since 2008, California's entire judicial branch been cut close to $1 billion.

In Sacramento County, 194 positions have been cut. If the current budget remains, another 60 or 70 will go as well. The cuts are so bad they're talking about shutting down small claims.

"If we don't stop doing small claims, then we have to stop doing adoptions, or personal protective orders, or we have to stop arraigning criminal defendants who are in custody," Earl explained.

The situation is even worse in San Joaquin County. Their small claims division has already been shut down; that means any issue involving up to $10,000 is sitting on a shelf, going nowhere.

When asked if the cuts are dancing a line of breaking the law, San Joaquin's presiding Judge, David Warner said, "Absolutely. We're not dancing on the line, we went over the line. We're required to have small claims cases; they're required to be heard. The code sets out a specific number of days. With small claims, I believe it's 75 from filing to trial. If it's sitting on a shelf, you're not meeting that."

The court cuts also affect businesses. If a business in San Joaquin County needs the court to help collect on past debts, it will take a lot longer for the request to be processed.

"Businesses may come in frequently, and if they can't get in here and do the work that they need to do, I don't know how they'll stay in business," Warner said.

Many courts across California have the same issues, like Placer County, which is closing courtrooms, shutting down family law case management and issuing orders cutting operating hours.

The only solution to the courts' budget problems is to get more funding from the state.

"This is something where when enough people speak up and say, 'That's not acceptable,' Sacramento will change," Warner said.

But until that money comes, the many people waiting for days in lines are forced to spend their money on a lawyer.

"Unless you have tremendous amounts of patience and are in no hurry, don't be surprised if it comes down to having to do that," Gold said.


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