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Monday, June 20, 2011

Criminal Cases Would Be Less Affected by S.F. Court Layoffs

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 4:55 PM

click to enlarge gavel_justice.jpg

California's oft-discussed governmental dysfunction is starting to take its toll. Public access to our state's natural resources is already on the chopping block; on Friday, more ominous news arrived about public access to justice. In light of the budget approved last week by the state Legislature, the San Francisco Superior Court system is planning to lay off 41 percent of its workforce, and close 25 of its 63 courtrooms.

Cuts to state funding for courts were promptly criticized by San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein. "We are not an emergency room that can turn away patients because we are at capacity," Feinstein said in a statement. "People want an orderly resolution to their disputes. If they can't achieve that outcome, then we will see more disorderly resolutions."

According to court spokeswoman Ann Donlan, the majority of those

"disorderly resolutions" would affect people in civil -- not

criminal -- courtrooms. That's because the courts are mandated by law to process criminal cases within set periods of time. (Which isn't to say that criminal cases don't sometimes drag on for no good reason.) "Clearly, the burden will fall more heavily on the civil departments," Donlan said. "Disputes are going to be protracted."

That's right: If you're looking to sue your neighbor for chopping down that charming cypress tree at the edge of the yard, or take an old boss to small-claims court, you might have to stand in line. The layoffs and courtroom closures would also affect more serious litigation, of course, including high-stakes, emotionally charged cases in the family courts.

While Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the budget approved by lawmakers, Donlan said the court system is still preparing for 200 layoffs in light of the uncertainty over funding. Layoff notices would be sent out in mid-July, taking effect in mid-September, she said. Last year, scheduled layoffs of 122 employees were halted at the last minute by a deal that allowed more cash to flow to the state courts.

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Peter Jamison

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