Catching Up With the California Courts' Budget Crisis

By William Peacock, Esq. on May 22, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The California Court system has been in crisis for quite some time. Years after years of budget cuts have shuttered courthouses, created hours-long lines, and delayed, if not outright denied, access to justice for many.

In January, Gov. Jerry Brown released a proposed budget that would have added $100 million in funding system-wide (most of which would've gone to pension obligations) -- a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $1 billion in cuts over the last six years, or $544 million in cuts in 2012 alone. Later that month, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye released a report that outlined the carnage to the courts, noting that there is a $874.9 million budget shortfall and that an additional $260 million would be needed just to "tread water."

What's the current state of the courts? And is there help on the way?

State of the Courts: Misery and Backlogs

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times did a lengthy profile of the current conditions of the court, including interviews with citizens, court staff and judges. The short take: the system is failing. Backlogs are delaying cases by years. Delays are approaching 1970s levels, a mark so poor that legislation was passed to speed up trial dates.

For citizens, lines to file documents or obtain legal help can last hours, and even then, there's no guarantee that they'll be seen.

Clerks are forced to choose between working windows or closing a window and working the backlog. The backlog is so bad that judges aren't getting case files in front of them when cases are called.

There is some good news out there: in San Bernardino County, shuttered courthouses mean people have to travel up to 3 and a half hours to the nearest courthouse -- terrible for victims and parties to a lawsuit, but great for jurors, since they're no longer calling Needles residents for jury duty.

Budget Bump?

The good news is, Governor Brown's budget, released last week, had a larger than proposed increase -- $160 million, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

The obvious bad news is that the figure is far less than the Chief Judge's "tread water" amount, which if her predictions were true, means layoffs and more delays for cases are coming.

Effects on You

Obviously, delayed cases and long lines at the courthouse are going to be an inconvenience for everyone. For lawyers, it makes e-filing and courier services a heck of a lot more appealing. You'll also want to have a speech prepared for frustrated clients that have to wait months for an uncontested divorce to process, or years for a civil suit to reach trial.

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