YourABA May 2012 Masthead

How LA Superior Court is keeping its doors open during lean times

State courts across the nation are struggling to serve their communities in the face of severe budget cuts, and the Los Angeles Superior Court is no different. However, the court’s efforts to address the tightening fiscal environment began in 2002, mitigating the impact of the severe budget reductions of late.

In her article, “Keeping Courtrooms Open in Times of Severe Budget Cuts,” Judge Lee Smalley Edmon, presiding judge of the Superior Court of California, Los Angeles County, shares insight on successful belt-tightening measures the court has taken to keep its doors open.

Edmon says the dot-com bust of 2002 forced the California court to lay off staff for the first time in its history and, as state funding slowly recovered, the court established a reserve fund.

That reserve fund and prudent fiscal management of it, she says, helped soften the brunt of the existing cuts on state operations. It allowed the court to make only incremental staff reductions when layoffs could have been significantly worse.

Good relationships with those controlling the purse strings have been helpful to the court during these hard times.

Still, over the last decade the Los Angeles Superior Court lost about 17 percent of its staff—while also seeing its caseload increase. The California general fund, which supports the state courts, dropped its funding by nearly 25 percent in the last five years, from $2.6 billion in 2007-2008 to $1.99 billion in 2012-2013—a shortfall beyond what a reserve fund could fill.

Good relationships with those controlling the purse strings have been helpful to the court during these hard times. “Our court has long invested in relationships with stakeholders at both the local and state levels, and this helped us develop useful intelligence about our environment—particularly our fiscal environment,” says Edmon, acknowledging that such relationships with legislators  have also helped to keep the concerns of the judiciary top of mind over other pressing national issues.

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Also providing strength to the court is its judges, who are aware of the funding issues and have been actively engaged in shaping budget strategy and supporting triage measures. “We began a major effort to educate our judges about the source of the problem, its likely future course and the range of possible responses,” says Edmon of the education push that began several years ago when the court first realized the coming funding problems.

“We knew that not only would we need buy-in from our bench officers to support the court’s leadership in managing the crisis, we also had to ensure that every step of the way, our budgetary solutions would respect the priority of our core work: adjudication,” Edmon continues.

Like many courts across the country, the Los Angeles Superior Court has implemented many operational changes that have allowed it to do more with less funds. Since constitutional protections exist for judicial positions, cuts have mostly impacted staff, whose salaries make up about 80 percent of the court’s expenditures. “This puts a premium not only on standard ways of reducing court appearances—which save staff the time of calendaring, preparing for and recording hearings—but also on utilizing judges without staff,” says Edmon. 

Among recent court implementations:

  • Specialized settlement courts, where judges operate without staff to settle cases;
  • Voluntary efficient litigation stipulations that are served on the parties to each civil case, encouraging them to reach stipulations to resolve issues without full court hearings; and
  • Automation innovations, including a robust online portal that handles nearly all aspects of jury service, electronic payment processing that allowed redeployment of nearly two dozen staff, as well as other “disintermediate” measures.

Edmon says that the court is only focusing on efforts that are material to justice and they have not yet had to radically change operations. But gridlock is emerging, and “as our reserves run out, and the already-existing cuts make themselves felt, we will be forced to abandon business as usual. What that will look like is the big unknown.”

Keeping Courtrooms Open in Times of Severe Budget Cuts” appears in the Judges’ Journal, a publication of the Judicial Division.

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