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How Are San Diego Superior Courts Affected By Budget Cuts?
September 12, 2012 1:08 p.m.
David Danielsen, San Diego Superior Court assistant presiding judge
CAVANAUGH: Reduced court staff, shorter hours and shuttered courtrooms in San Diego County. The budget signed by governor Jerry Brown cut more than $500 million from California courts. The first reductions in service were introduced last week from North County to downtown San Diego. Joining me to talk about what the cuts are and how they may affect your access to the legal system is my guest, judge David Danielson, assistant presiding judge of San Diego County superior court.
DANIELSON: Good afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: The first round of cuts to San Diego superior cuts have now taken place. How is the downtown courthouse affected?
DANIELSON: Well, the downtown courthouse like like courts all over California are in a process of restructuring. It is a time where the same amount of work is required of the Courts and we now are facing the reality of having fewer and fewer staff to deal with it. Right now, it's a time of shift and change, and probably from the public's point of view, a little bit of confusion because things are being rerouted. The normal work patterns are being disrupted.
CAVANAUGH: For instance, are the Court's business offices have closed. They have a half day on Fridays. And the release from the superior court to explain that, I'm going to quote, "to allow the Courts reduced staff to catch up on backlogs." How much staff personnel has the Court had to trim?
DANIELSON: Well, we're trimming personnel on the back of several years of reducing the workforce. We were balancing budgets because budgets have been reduced by not filling positions. So these cuts on the back of about a 17% vacancy rate anyhow. And over this fiscal year, we're ultimately going to loose about 200 employee, additional employees.
CAVANAUGH: So what are people not going to be able to do from noon to 5:00 on Friday that they used to be able to do if they went down to the downtown courthouse?
DANIELSON: If they come into the downtown courthouse and wanted to go to the business office to check records, to file paperwork, to pay fine, to schedule court appearances, the public portion of the business offices are going to be closed. They are closed.
CAVANAUGH: And still staying with the courthouse downtown now, 7 courtrooms are shuttered. What does that mean?
DANIELSON: Well, I think that's sort of a symbolic way of talking about the need to eliminate the cost associated with running a courtroom. And that cost primarily to the Court is in terms of staff. So as we have fewer and fewer staff, one of the things we need to do is figure out how we're going to deal with that. So you have a courtroom that normally would be handling exnumber of cases, certain kinds of cases, those cases have to be heard somewhere. They're simply added to another courtroom's calendar or several other courtrooms' calendars, and that courtroom goes dark. It eliminates the need to have staff on duty. And that judge is then free to be reassigneds to help out elsewhere.
CAVANAUGH: Now, the judge will be reassigned. What about the staff for that particular courtroom? Are those jobs preserved or are they on the chopping block?
DANIELSON: Well, I think there are going to be a number of courtroom clerks that are going to be a part of layoffs as we go through this fiscal year to get our full plan implement forward this year, and even more significantly, next year.
CAVANAUGH: Now, let's move from downtown to North County. The North County probate offices were closed last week. What kind of services were offered there?
DANIELSON: Well, that was a full-service probate court so that you could file your probate matters there and heard there, have them investigated there, all the things that a probate court does, including guardianships. Those things were being handleed there in Vista.
CAVANAUGH: Now where do people have to go?
DANIELSON: All of the probate operation has been centralized to our probate office in downtown.
CAVANAUGH: And also now the Ramona court is closed, and all matters are relocated to the east county courthouse; is that correct?
DANIELSON: That is correct.
CAVANAUGH: Did San Diego court officials decide which cuts to make?
DANIELSON: Yes. That has been a progress by the San Diego court, primarily through the judges working with the executive staff.
CAVANAUGH: So in other words, you're told by the state how much your budget is going to be cut and then locally you can decide what kind of cuts you're going to make?
DANIELSON: You know, it really is a situation where we had a court system in this county that ran on close to $191 million, and we were told we were going to have $157 million to do it. And so that became our problem. How do we absorb those cuts and continue to serve the public? That's our responsibility.
CAVANAUGH: How difficult that was process?
DANIELSON: It has been probably one of the most disconcerting and painful things I've been involved in since I've been in the court over the last 22 years. We have tried our best to be progressive in the way that we handle our case loads, to be of service to the public, and over the last few years, we've been shielding the public from the cuts that we've already suffered. And now we know we've got to do things that will hurt the public and hurt this organization.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as I understand it, are the next cut in the pipeline is the Los of mandatory court reporters for civil cases, and apparently that's already in effect in Los Angeles. What is the effect of not having court reporters mandated for civil cases?
DANIELSON: The change is going to be that the Courts will no longer automatically be providing court reporter at court expense in civil and many family courtrooms and in all probate courtrooms. The parties have the right to hire their own court reporter, have that court reporter certified and report the proceedings. That's not a problem for people who have adequate means. But for people who do not have the financial resources, it means that there will be no official record of the proceedings in the Court. The clerks will continue to take minutes. The judges will continue to make decisions and issue orders, but there's no verbaitip record of what's transpired in the Court.
CAVANAUGH: And to be clear, this is actually for trials, not just deposition, right?
DANIELSON: This is for trials and all hearings in court. Depositions are proceedings that occur outside of the Court so that normally those are circumstances where the people are used to already hiring their own court reporters and creating their own record.
CAVANAUGH: I have read that there's some concern as you expressed here that this could lead to a 2-tiered level of justice for people who can afford a court reporter, have a record, and then those who can't. And if you don't have a record of a court proceeding, it's almost impossible to appeal; is that correct?
DANIELSON: It certainly makes it much more difficult to get meaningful review on appeal. But there are alternative ways of creating a record on appeal. They're frankly very burdensome and very expensive. And I think if anyone really thinks that inadequate funding to the Courts is going to lead to a 2-tiered system of justice, they have a good grasp on the issues. This is not good for people of less than adequate means.
CAVANAUGH: You said that you have been able to shield the public from the budget cuts that the Court system has already taken in recent years. How have you seen the budget shrink in those years?
DANIELSON: You know, it -- I think the number is staggering. I think we're talking about more than a billion dollars overall to the Court system. But for us, just in San Diego we have been running a structural deficit in excess of $7 million a year where we have had to figure out creative ways to cover the costs of what we need, and one of the ways that we've been meeting the structural deficit over the last two or three years really is to not fill jobs and to try to do the work with less employees.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you've been quoted as saying that as bad as the cuts are that we've been talking about, you think that the worst cuts are coming in the 2014-fiscal year. Why is that?
DANIELSON: Well, we have a pretty good idea of what the next two years look like. And in each year, the actual reduction in San Diego budget is about $33 million. So we need to make cuts that will allow us to function with $33 million less. We have been prudent in planning for these problems so that we do have about 22 or $23 million sieved. And that's going to help us sort of cushion the blow in the initial year. That's why we talk in terms of the $14 million cut this year instead of the full 33 or $34 million that we're actually going to suffer.
CAVANAUGH: I see. So what services might be on the chopping block if you're looking at that full amount?
DANIELSON: Well, we are looking at that full amount. And although it's coming in small increment, these are going to be very quick increments. We're going to be closing a number of civil independent calendar courtrooms around the county. We will not be providing civil business office in east county or south county. Those courts are going to be very limited in anything that they handle down there other than criminal. You're going to see courtrooms closing in civil. The family law courts are going to be trimmed down. We're going to be losing staff court reporters, facilitators, important people. Part of the plan will be to eliminate a few subordinate judicial officer positions even as we speak. One of the things thattidge people don't understand is that we're in a situation we're going to be cutting effectively all staff pay by 9% as a result of involuntary work furloughs. They're going to be required to take 24 days off without pay over the next period of time. There are just a lot of different parts to the plan, and this is all going to be implemented by July of 2013 because we have to have all of our cuts in place by the start of that fiscal year otherwise we won't make it through.
CAVANAUGH: And a lot of people have been hearing a lot about the governor's tax initiative. These cuts are not affected by the tax initiative, whether it passes or not. They are now in place; is that right?
DANIELSON: Yes. They are not contingent. They're in place, and we are allegedly exempt from any fallout from the November ballot.
CAVANAUGH: If it doesn't pass.
DANIELSON: Yeah. But I have to say that none of us are very confident that if the state budget deficit is as projected that we won't have somebody knocking on our door asking us for more reductions.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, judge Daniel son, as you're considering make all these painful cuts you've been talking about, how do you think most San Diegans will actually be aware of the changes and cutbacks at San Diego courts?
DANIELSON: Most San Diegans will not be aware of the cutbacks in the Court. Only the people that want to have civil justice are going to be aware. Only the people that want to have their traffic matters are going to be aware. Only the people that don't have the sense to not get divorced or have child custody problems. Those people are going to be aware, those people that have those issues.
CAVANAUGH: That's still a wide section of the population.
DANIELSON: It is. Anybody that needs the services of the Court is going to notice a slower, less efficient court.
CAVANAUGH: So as you were saying before, the overall effect of these cuts may actually be that people who have the wherewithal will be doing better in the Court system than those who can't afford it?
DANIELSON: Well, I think those who have money are going to be standing in the same lines. They may be able to buy a lawyer to stand in line for them, but they're all going to be standing in line. Things are going to be slower for everybody. The fallout may be in increased flight from the Court system for those that can afford to have an alternative dispute resolution available to them.
CAVANAUGH: Like a mediation?
DANIELSON: Like a mediation, an arbitration.
CAVANAUGH: Because it'll take less time?
DANIELSON: Less time, and they're not dependent on government funding to function. It is I business.
CAVANAUGH: Now, is there anything the public can do to upon had them through this truncated system? Is there a better time to go to the courthouse? A better way to approach some of thyself matters before the Court, considering that we have these cutbacks in place?
DANIELSON: I think we're into uncharted territory. There is no game plan or design that's been given to any of us how to appreciate how this is going to affect. So I don't know that I've got any advice to coming down other than planning on spending a lot more time. The best advice would probably be try to be reasonable and avoid the Court.
CAVANAUGH: All right then. Well, thank you very much for speaking with us.
DANIELSON: No problem. Thank you.