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Court Pitches In By Closing

by Susannah Kopecky, published

To deal with the "fiscal emergency" in California, the Los Angeles Superior Court will be shutting down... once a month, that is.

On Tuesday, May 19, officials at the high court announced their intention of the court to furlough workers and close the court's doors every third Wednesday, once a month, in order to help curb the budget deficit (estimated at about $20 billion at the moment). Currently, the LA-based court is staring at a budget deficit of around $89.9 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year alone, which, if not addressed, is expected to rise to $118.3 million by 2012-2013. This year's budget "shortfall" adds up to nearly 10 percent of the budget of the LA County Superior Court, which has upwards of a $900 million budget at its disposal each year, according to the court.

As such, the court is looking to trim the fat... and then some. The newest move is expected to save approximately $18 million each year.

The news of the planned monthly closures came on Election Day, when five of the six state measures meant to address the teetering budget were defeated at the polls, with margins of about 2-to-1 against.

According to a press release from the Los Angeles Superior Court, the courts will shut down "nearly of" operations, starting on Wednesday, July 15, though the estimated $18 million saved may "not be enough to avert employee layoffs and, eventually, closure of entire courthouses" if things don't improve on the budget front by budget year 2011-2012. Clerk's offices and juror services will be closed on the specified Wednesdays, and judges have been asked to "postpone or move all scheduled court dates on affected Wednesdays" until further notice. According to a statement from the court, there are 5,400 employees of the court, and if things don't start to turn around by next year, a quarter of those employees ("as many as 1,300") may lose their jobs. For others, the new program still may mean partial wage decreases, as those employees who still work on "closure" Wednesdays will still end up being "furloughed on other days."

This is big news for court employees, as the court estimates that more than 85 percent of the court system's budget is "for personnel," and if massive layoffs are necessary, some courts would have to be entirely shut down. About 600 courtrooms over 50 courthouses will be closed on the designated Wednesdays, though some of the LA courthouses will stay open on the designated days, for "emergency matters," some specified activities and "non-court operations." The LA County Superior Court has decided to impose a hiring freeze, and as well as engaging in "other ongoing expenditure reductions, largely by cutting services and supplies, restricting travel and other means."

However, if the budget doesn't get under wraps, employees most likely wouldn't be laid off in the coming year, but perhaps in the years following. It is hoped that addressing the situation now may better prepare officials to deal with larger impending fiscal problems down the line. Judge Charles W. McCoy stated in the press release that "We cannot allow denial, false hope or wishful thinking to cause us to drift through the crisis. We should expect things will grow increasingly difficult before they begin to get better. We must, and will, remain masters of our own destiny to the extent possible." The judge also noted the complexity of ordering a closing of a court system, even if only in one jurisdiction. "We are the largest and most complex court system in the United States... You cannot suddenly bring a system like ours to a halt. This must be orderly and planned..."


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