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Most of L.A. Superior Court closed today to save money

July 15, 2009 | 11:09 am

Responding to the state’s deepening budget crisis, authorities shut down most Los Angeles County Superior Court operations today as an unpaid furlough program took effect for the first time.

Although all courthouses will remain open, 93% of the county’s 5,400 court employees have been told to stay home on the third Wednesday of each month until June. Presiding Judge Charles "Tim" McCoy said he was forced to take the step in anticipation of a $138-million funding shortfall for the fiscal year that began this month.

“This is not a good day for the people of Los Angeles County,” McCoy said in a statement. “For the first time in modern memory, we are forced to shut down most of our court system because we can’t afford to keep it operating.”

The Los Angeles system is the nation’s largest network of trial courts. About 100,000 people pass through its 50 courthouses and 600 courtrooms every day, staff members said.

Most courthouses, including the Criminal Courts Building in downtown Los Angeles, will keep at least one courtroom open to handle statutorily mandated hearings and felony bench warrants, said spokeswoman Vania Stuelp.

The courts will also continue to handle requests for domestic violence, elder abuse or civil harassment restraining orders involving stalking or threats of violence. However, there are more than 10,000 hearings the courts won’t get to today because of the employee furlough, McCoy said in a telephone interview.

“That is very significant,” McCoy said. “But I am most worried about what we are going to have to do next, because it is not going to get better.”

Reducing the number of workdays will the save the courts only about $18 million a year, which is not enough to close the projected budget gap, he said. McCoy is already discussing the possibility of permanently shutting down some courtrooms or entire courthouses.

The anticipated deficit stems from cuts in state funding for the 2009-10 fiscal year. In the budget enacted in February, trial courts statewide took more than $200 million in cuts, said Donna Hershkowitz, assistant director of the Administrative Office of the Courts' lobbying office.

The cuts have forced courts to tighten their belts by imposing hiring freezes, leaving vacant positions unfilled and reducing counter hours, she said. Although judges’ salaries are protected by the state Constitution, McCoy said, most of the county’s more than 400 judges have agreed to a voluntary pay cut of 5%, which is about what other employees will lose.

Although court officials said they had rescheduled all of today’s hearings, not everyone received the notices. By 8.30 a.m., a line of about 100 people had formed outside the Metropolitan Courthouse in downtown.

Brian and Shaleena Cabral, both 22-year-old college students, said they had left home at 5 a.m. to drive in from Bakersfield for a hearing concerning a 10-month-old “fix-it” ticket, which had turned into a $1,600 fine for missing a previous court date.

They were told to return Monday. Brian Cabral used to work as a pizza deliveryman, but lost the job when his driver’s license was put on hold because of the fine. His wife took time off from a part-time job at a  mall for today’s wasted trip.

“This is stopping life,” Brian Cabral said. “We’re going to school and planning for our future. But it’s our own government that is giving us all these obstacles and making it harder.”

Court officials are urging the public today to use the courts' website to handle traffic tickets, make inquiries regarding jury service and perform other transactions. Documents may be filed and payments made for fines and fees by leaving them in a secure drop box.

-- Alexandra Zavis and Victoria Kim