California Courts to Close 1 Day a Month

July 30, 2009 10:04:53 PM PDT
For the first time ever, courts across California will be shut down one weekday a month to help close a $414-million dollar budget gap in the state court system.The closures are expected to save about $85-million dollars and prevent layoffs but critics say the plan comes with too high of a cost for the people who work within the courts and everyone who uses them.

Merced County Superior courtrooms are frequently overflowing with crime victims, defendants, officers and attorneys, all waiting for their cases to be called. And now the overcrowding and delays are expected to get worse due to a decision by state officials to shut down all California courts every third Wednesday from September through July.

"There will be extra cases on the days to make up for the dark day, and of course, our employees are going to receive 4.6 percent less in their paychecks at least for the next fiscal year," said Judge John Kirihara with the Merced County Superior Court.

Judge John Kirihara said the savings plan may also lead to cuts in services like court-appointed attorneys. Meanwhile, Sheriff Mark Pazin, who is also the chair of the State Sheriff's Association Court Security Committee, said the closures will have a trickledown effect that will slow the entire judicial process and increase jail overcrowding. And he's shocked the state has taken this step.

"Now we've gone from cutting the fat to cutting to the bone. Now we've gone to what I call fiscal amputation. They are just lopping off everything."

Pazin said it's still unclear whether the full time deputies and part time court security staff will lose their pay on furlough days or be re-assigned. But he says the closures will end up costing the county more to cover overtime due to overbooked calendars. "Just like anything else, whatever happens in Sacramento they think they've done cost saving measures, guess what? It all trickles down to the county level and quite frankly I'm kind of getting tired of it."

But Judge Kirihara said most court employees seem to prefer the monthly closures to potential lay-offs. "They have been very cooperative about saying we'll all take a cut and therefore nobody actually loses their job."

Judges cannot have their pay cut because they are protected as constitutional officers. Kirihara said he expects many Merced County Superior Court Judges and others around the state will take voluntary pay cuts to help their courts through this financial crisis.

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