The state of California courts is grim

Gloomy. Very gloomy. That's the state of the judiciary in California as laid out by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to a joint session of the Legislature on Monday.

Over the last five difficult budget years, the Legislature has cut funding for the courts by $1 billion. Traditionally the judicial branch, the 58 county Superior Courts, the six Courts of Appeal and the state Supreme Court received 2 percent of the general fund budget. Today, spending on courts accounts for just 1 percent of the general fund. "Equal access to justice for 38 million Californians," the chief justice warned lawmakers, "cannot be had for a penny on the dollar." She is right about that.

According to the chief justice, since January 2010, 22 courthouses have closed across the state, 114 courtrooms have been shuttered, 30 courts have reduced their hours of operations, and more than 2,600 court employees have either been laid off or left and were not replaced.

In San Luis Obispo County, the Grover Beach courthouse was shut down in January 2012 as a cost-saving measure, and cases were transferred to San Luis Obispo. The closure of the Grover Beach branch is still listed as “temporary” on the Superior Court website.

Scores of specialty courts for veterans, the homeless, people with mental illnesses and drug addicts also have gone by the wayside.

The result — access to justice, particularly the civil side of justice, has been dangerously curtailed.

In Sacramento County, for example, more than a quarter of the courthouse workforce, 230 people, have been laid off or left and not been replaced since 2008. Family law litigants seeking to divorce or settle child custody and support matters can wait up to seven hours to file documents.

Help that used to be available to assist those litigants, 70 percent of whom come without lawyers, has been slashed to the bone. Help with forms, telephone responses and via email is nearly gone. Twenty-five counter service windows have been closed and the hours reduced for those that are left. Even janitorial services have been cut to the most basic level.

If civil litigants are wealthy, they can pay for private mediation. But for the indigent, stuck in overwhelmed and understaffed public courts, it can take as long as five years to schedule a trial. For injured plaintiffs waiting for relief, justice delayed that long is a gross injustice.

The courts themselves are not blameless in this budget crisis. A badly administered statewide court case management system wasted hundreds of millions of dollars before the Administrative Office of the Courts junked it. While Cantil-Sakauye has cut AOC staffing by 30 percent over the last year or so, it had grown top-heavy even as trial courts suffered devastating reductions.

The governor's latest budget does not seek to cut more general fund support for the courts, but it doesn't restore past cuts, either. It redirects court construction funds in a way that delays critical repairs and courthouse replacements.

Meanwhile, common-sense reforms, such as replacing expensive and inefficient court reporters with electronic recording devices, have not been implemented. The Legislative Analyst's Office says that change alone would save the courts $100 million a year, but influential labor unions have kept that cost-saving reform bottled up in the Legislature for years.

Starved of funding and stymied in efforts to reform its own operations, the state of the judiciary is perilous. As Cantil-Sakauye told lawmakers this week, "What we once counted on - that courts would be open, available and ready to dispense prompt justice, is no longer the case in California."