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Judiciary report paints bleak funding picture

The San Diego County Bar Association released its 2014 State of the Judiciary Report this week, and it's not an easy read.

The 12-page report details how court hours and staffing levels have been slashed, creating delayed court hearings and overburdened judges.

It also reveals that despite a pledge by Gov. Jerry Brown to reinvest in the state court system — and a two-year funding plan to back up his words — San Diego County will feel little relief.

"In San Diego, without more money, the impacts are going to be felt a lot more by the public and the real-world stories [of its effects] are going to start piling up," said Heather Riley, co-chair of the San Diego County Bar Association's (SDCBA) court funding action committee.

The state's fiscal year 2014-15 budget, approved in June, increases the funding augmentation from $100 million to $160 million as part of a two-year strategy to stabilize trial court funding.

However, the extra monies won't be spread evenly across the state, meaning San Diego Superior Court won't see an increase in overall revenues.

San Diego Superior Court will receive $166.9 million in revenue from all sources for the fiscal year 2014-15, a decrease of $1 million from 2013-14.

Making matters worse, with increased operating costs, local court officials will need to cut $6 million in their current fiscal year budget. It is anticipated San Diego Superior Court will need to cut an additional $3 million in its 2015-16 budget.

The SDCBA's State of the Judiciary report is filled with personal stories of how the funding crisis has affected individual business owners and residents.

"We understand on a daily basis what the cuts are doing to our clients," Riley said, "so we want to make sure other businesses in town, members of the public and, more importantly, our elected officials understand what the court funding crisis is doing to the San Diego community."

The cutbacks forced San Diego County to shutter all civil business offices in its East County (El Cajon) division and South County (Chula Vista) division in November 2012 and consolidate all their functions into the Central division.

With those office closures, caseloads in the Central Division jumped from up to 600 cases to up to 1,100 cases per judge, according to the SDCBA report, further delaying all civil operations and the time it takes to hear a motion or move a case forward.

Routine law and motion matters are taking from six to seven months, where those motions used to be scheduled and heard in as few as 16 days.

The report also revealed:

• There are now only two commissioners in the Central Division to hear the 120 traffic court trials set on a calendar each day.

• The time to obtain a Family Court Services appointment used to average two weeks for first-time appointments and three weeks for returns. Now those appointments take an average of eight and 10 weeks, respectively.

• The Central Division’s Civil Department has seen the clerical office backlog increase from 216 hours in June 2012, to a staggering 2,057 hours in December 2012.

• Processing a default judgment, which is required when a defendant fails to respond to a lawsuit, can take more than six months, a process that used to take only two weeks.

• There is at least an eight-week backlog to issue misdemeanor warrants for failure to comply with a court order. Those warrants used to be issued in no more than one week.

San Diego Superior Court has tried to mitigate the cutbacks by increasing efficiency. The court built a completely paperless civil court with 24/7 online access for file review and filing; established standalone online public scheduling applications for traffic and family law; and in-sourced information technology functions previously handled by outside vendors.

Some of the problems, however, can be solved only by more funding.

"And while the courts in San Diego have worked very hard to streamline processes and seek out innovative ways to increase efficiencies, it is impossible for the judicial branch to ‘efficiency’ its way out of $1.2 billion of budget cuts," the report stated, referring to the cutbacks made from 2007 to 2012.

Riley said the state needs to find a way to give the courts more money.

"San Diego Superior Court is doing the best with what it has — and functions amazingly well for the funding it's been given — but I think the courts are entitled to more and deserve more," Riley said.

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