Thursday, November 15, 2012
Los Angeles County to Close 10 Courthouses Due to Budget Cuts
Los Angeles County court officials announced sweeping cuts in the judicial system Wednesday, including the closure of all courtrooms in 10 regional courthouses.
The cuts are expected to delay some trials, cause longer lines and result in more layoffs, but officials said it was the only option for closing a shortfall of $50 million to $80 million in the court budget.
Courtrooms will be shuttered in such landmark courthouses as Beverly Hills, West Los Angeles, Malibu, Avalon, Huntington Park, Whittier, Pomona and San Pedro. The courthouses will continue to handle some administrative matters, such as ticket payments, but will no longer hear cases.
The Beverly Hills and Malibu courthouses have been the sites of numerous celebrity proceedings over the years, including cases involving Zsa Zsa Gabor, Robert Downey Jr., Mel Gibson and Lindsay Lohan.
The criminal and civil cases from those locations will be reassigned to courts that could be anywhere from seven to 35 miles away, leading to longer commutes for jurors, witnesses, litigants and law enforcement officials.
The closures are expected to occur over the next eight months.
"It's devastating to the court system, and it's going to be a sea change in how we do our business," said Lee Smalley Edmon, presiding judge of the L.A. County Superior Court. "Unfortunately, there are going to be longer lines in each of our courthouses and great delays throughout the system."
Officials said civil courts will be particularly hard hit, with many civil courtrooms operating with only one court clerk and without any full-time court reporters.
It's unclear how many court workers will lose their jobs. The Los Angeles County courts have already laid off hundreds of employees and left more positions unfilled, resulting in longer lines to file paperwork and cases that plod along at a snail's pace.
In the last fiscal year, the court system shaved $70 million from its budget, in part by freezing wages and forcing staff members to take furlough days.
Plans also call for the creation of "trial hubs," which would handle certain classifications of cases, including small claims, landlord-tenant disputes, collections and personal injury. Those hubs would be spread at remaining courthouses throughout the county.
Antonio Bestard, a veteran civil trial attorney from Pomona, said that even before Wednesday's announcement, the effects of previous cuts were hard to miss.
"It's going to be an unfathomable burden that's going to deny the general public basic judicial remedies, from the smallest traffic infractions to the most complicated civil lawsuits," Bestard said.
David Sapp, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, worried that low-income litigants could be disproportionately affected.
"Some people are in immediate need of judicial relief and may not even be able to get in front of a judge, which is really scary in terms of access to justice," Sapp said. "This is going to make existing disparities even worse."
Richard J. Burdge Jr. president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., said that as devastating as the cuts may be, he believes they won't cripple the court system.
"It's not going to be easy, but there is going to be some civil justice system," Burdge said. "It's going to be incredibly burdensome for a claimant to travel halfway across the county to get to a courthouse and in some communities."
LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said that the same would be true for police officers and that their increased travel time could potentially reduce their ranks in the field.
But Smith said that his "real concern" is for the victims and witnesses who already may have difficulty getting to court.
"It'll be even more difficult to get people to testify if they have to drive or be transported a long distance."