California budget raid jeopardizes Modesto courthouse construction funding

A decision by California lawmakers to raid $1.4 billion from the judicial system during the budget crisis is having a direct impact on a $267 million courthouse construction project in Modesto, according to the ModBee. With 23 courthouse construction projects in the works across the state, the budget raid could have implications well beyond the city borders.

As budgets have become constrained, courthouses have closed, forcing existing courthouses to renovate to accommodate the influx of new cases. Brandi Christensen, facilities support service manager for Stanislaus County Superior Court told the Bee, “We don’t have an inch to move. Our courtrooms are packed every day.”

In addition to lack of space, many courthouses have fallen into deep disrepair from age. In the case of the Modesto courthouse, the Bee reports, “The most modern part of the current courthouse — which houses the courtrooms — was built in 1960. The other half of the courthouse was built in 1871 and remodeled in 1939. The courthouse has no holding cells for inmates, who are kept in jury rooms before their court appearances.”

The Judicial Council of California’s Court Facilities Advisory Committee met on June 28th in San Francisco to go over courthouse construction funding, and found it is coming up short. Very short. The Council directed the staff to develop funding recommendations, in concert with  the Department of Finance, in advance of their next meeting August 4th.

We’ll continue to follow the story, and you can get caught up with full details at the full Modesto Bee article here.

Court Budgets Ravaged in CT

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is also seeking to eliminate $50 million in a new sales-tax, revenue-sharing plan with cities and towns, while Democrats are battling to keep enough funding to ensure that property taxes on cars are cut in high-tax cities like Hartford and New Britain. (Michael Dwyer / AP)

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is also seeking to eliminate $50 million in a new sales-tax, revenue-sharing plan with cities and towns, while Democrats are battling to keep enough funding to ensure that property taxes on cars are cut in high-tax cities like Hartford and New Britain. (Michael Dwyer / AP)

We reported earlier this week that Arizona’s courts are in a political fight right now, but across the country in Connecticut, the judicial system is bracing for impact.

The Hartford Courant reports, “…more than 600 workers could be laid off in the judicial branch if Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s latest budget proposal is approved, officials said. Of those, 110 workers will receive layoff notices Thursday as the courts prepare for a worst-case scenario of “widespread courthouse closings and consolidations,” officials said.”

We have seen in a variety of other locations that courthouse closings often disproportionately impact access of justice for low income people. The Chief Court Administrator wrote a letter to the Governor this week decrying the cuts, saying “This reduction is both unprecedented and catastrophic in its consequences.”

Whether these cuts will take root – or whether low income people will be impacted – remains to be seen. We’ll be following the story along, and you can do so here at the Hartford Courant.

Florida Court District Says Divorce Hearing Can Take A Year

Courts nationwide are facing serious rationing, but a Tampa-area regional justice system is offering some details of its crisis. The info came as county commissioners are debating new facilities. But the area’s chief judge says that won’t help much because “… we can build additional courtrooms but nothing’s going to happen unless we have more judges to oversee them… we haven’t had a new judge in 10 years. Get the (state) Legislature to give us more judges.”

At issue is Florida’s 6th Judicial Circuit, which serves fast-goring Pasco and Pinellas counties The Tampa Bay Tribune explained that the district is “Florida’s third-largest court system. It has 69 judges to oversee all criminal, civil, appellate, family, traffic and small claims court cases. There are seven county court judges and 13 circuit judges assigned to handle cases at the New Port Richey and Dade City courthouses. In 2013 — the most recent figures available — those 20 Pasco County judges handled 24,069 circuit court cases and 41,733 county court cases. And the caseload keeps growing.”

One judge told county officials that it takes a year just to get a hearing on a divorce case

See more at the Tampa Tribune. 

Alabama Joins California In Civil Court Cuts, Delays

In a situation similar to what California faced in 2012 and 2013, Alabama is the latest state to face dramatic court system budget cuts. The now-familiar refrain is that criminal courts, with their constitutional guarantees, will remain a priority while civil cases will really feel most of the impact.  The Birmingham Business Journal has a good report and notes that “.. one overlooked aspect of cutting the court budget is how it will affect businesses. Already, short-staffed civil cases with businesses can take up to two years to resolve, but with the proposed budget cuts [a court source] said he sees these cases taking up to five years.
 
That would, in turn, change the local business landscape, the report argues.
 

WSJ Report Outlines Delays For Federal Civil Court Dockets

Detailing the case of a man awaiting his day in court since 2007, the Wall Street Journal notes that the example is only one of “… more than 330,000 such cases” and that “… thee number of cases awaiting resolution for three years or more exceeded 30,000 for the fifth time in the past decade.”
 
The report gives reasons, and makes the case that the civil justice system slows when the criminal justice system gets busy: “… the Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases. But the Sixth Amendment gives people in criminal cases the right to a “speedy” trial. The upshot: Criminal cases often displace and delay civil disputes, creating a backlog.”
 
It also says that “… federal court for California’s Eastern District [where the example case is located] has a particularly deep backlog. The number of cases filed per judge, 974 last year, is almost twice the national average. More than 14% of civil cases in that district have been pending for three years or more.” The report outlines the political challenges to fixing the tardy system. Read the WSJ story here: In Federal Courts, the Civil Cases Pile Up

Texas To Rule On Civil Fees Issue

The Texas Supreme Court is expected to hear a case this week that might clarify when local courts can force poor plaintiffs to pay fees. The Texas Tribune news website explains that”… in 2012, six plaintiffs from Tarrant County sued the local district court clerk for charging them court fees even after they filed affidavits of their indigent status — also known as ‘pauper petitions’ — when they filed for divorce. But the clerk says final divorce decrees require that each party pay its share of the court costs.” 
 
The Tribune report also placed the issue in some context: “… court costs and fines surfaced as one of the more pressing criminal justice issues in the aftermath of the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. While a grand jury cleared the officer, Darren Wilson, of criminal wrongdoing, a subsequent U.S. Department of Justice report revealed how the police department in Ferguson wrote more tickets for mostly poor African Americans than any other ethnic group. Following the shooting of Brown, federal investigators found that Ferguson relied on municipal ticketing and fines as a revenue generator for the city’s budget.”
 

NYT Notes ‘Border Kid’ Crisis Is Not Over, But Has Moved

As reported by NPR: Detainees sleep and watch television in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed at a U.S. Customs facility in Nogales, Texas.

As reported by NPR: Detainees sleep and watch television in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed at a U.S. Customs facility in Nogales, Texas.

The New York Times has an important story about the “Border Kids” who arrived in the country amid headlines last summer. The paper notes that the number of kids has dropped, but the crisis has moved to courts. Meanwhile, a federal judge in California has given the U.S. government mere weeks to shut down several “family detention” centers because they are illegal.
 
On the court crisis, the NYT backgrounder is that “… about 84,000 children were apprehended at the Southwest border during the 2014 fiscal year and the first six months of the 2015 fiscal year, according to the Border Patrol. Of the 79,088 removal cases initiated by the government, 15,207 children had been ordered deported as of June, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.
 
“While a small percentage of children have been granted asylum, most are seeking relief from deportation by applying for special immigrant juvenile status, federal officials said. And yet, rather than their claims being expedited, 69 percent of the children on the priority docket still have cases pending, statistics show.
 
“The burden is far more difficult for children if they do not have a lawyer — a right not granted to defendants in immigration courts — especially because of the accelerated time frame the government established for their cases. After being released to a sponsor, usually a relative, they are on the clock: They are required to make their first court appearance within 21 days of the court’s receiving their case to contest their deportation.”
 
Read the excellent report here: Immigration Crisis Shifts From Border to Courts
 
For a refresher on the Family Detention Center, check out our late August blogs, “Obama Admin. Fighting To Keep Family Detention Centers” and “Judge Orders Govt. To Release Detained Kids.”

Obama Admin. Fighting To Keep Family Detention Centers

As reported in Politico on 8/7/15: US citizens Esmeralda Tepetate, 10, with her brother Sebastian, 2, whose parents are originally from Mexico, holds a sign that says "stop separating families" during a rally for comprehensive immigration reform, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014,  outside of the White House in Washington. After the midterm elections immigration groups are pushing for executive action. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

As reported in Politico on 8/7/15: US citizens Esmeralda Tepetate, 10, with her brother Sebastian, 2, whose parents are originally from Mexico, holds a sign that says “stop separating families” during a rally for comprehensive immigration reform, Friday, Nov. 7, 2014, outside of the White House in Washington. After the midterm elections immigration groups are pushing for executive action. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Politico and others are reporting that the Obama administration is asking a federal judge to reconsider her ruling that the U.S. must release of tens of thousands of immigrant mothers and children who tried to cross the southern border illegally. Says Politico: “… in a 60-page response filed late Thursday, Justice Department lawyers argued that family detention facilities run by the Department of Homeland Security are a necessary tool to help deter illegal migration to the United States.”
 
The judge’s order is starting to gain notice, as has the family detention issue. President Obama also finds himself at odds with his own party, according to Politico, which reports that “… detaining immigrant families caught at the border have run into steep opposition from Democrats on Capitol Hill. Nearly all members of the House Democratic Caucus signed onto a letter circulated last week by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a former immigration attorney who is the ranking member on a House subcommittee overseeing the policy.”
 
“It is long past time to end family detention,” the House Democrats wrote in the letter. “In light of this recent federal court ruling, we urge you take all necessary and appropriate steps to bring the Department’s practices in line with the settlement agreement and the recent court ruling.” Keep track of the slow-burning fuse here:
Read more: DOJ fights family detention ruling (Politico)

L.A. Times Calls Out Congress Over Immigration Court Backlog

In a major editorial, the Los Angeles Times is calling upon Congress to fix the immigration court backlog and offers some compelling numbers in the process: “… over the last 10 years, the workload of the federal immigration court system has increased by 146% to an astounding 453,948 active cases at the end of July. The average amount of time each of those cases has been pending: 627 days. Some have been lingering for years.”
 
The LAT also notes that the backlog effects are exactly what we don’t want: People who have no legal right to be in the country get lengthy reprieves simply because the judges can’t get to their cases while those with legit claims are left “twisting in the wind.”
 
The editorial says that “… the reason for the enormous backlog is clear. While the government has poured money into enhancing border security — the number of border agents has nearly doubled to 21,000 in the last decade — it has failed to similarly increase the capacity of the immigration court system that hears deportation cases. According to a recent report, immigration enforcement budgets increased 300% from 2002 through 2013, but immigration court budgets rose only 70%.
 
The immigration courts are really an international embarrassment for the United States. The LAT editorial shows just how bad it is, and why it’s likely to get worse: The immigration court backlog: Why won’t Congress act?

New Courts Director Targets Pension Reform

That state auditor’s report illustrating free-spending ways for
California’s top courts officials has helped spark some reform. The
Courthouse News reports that “… in his first round of big changes to
California’s court bureaucracy, new director Martin Hoshino answered a
scathing report from the state auditor with a series of reforms that
included eliminating a lavish pension benefit for the top brass.

The CN adds that “the controversial perk was cut back in 2012 by Chief
Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, but top executives were still receiving
another 22% in pension contributions from public funds on top of their
salaries, including Chief Operating Officer Curt Childs, Chief
Administrative Officer Curt Soderlund and Chief of Staff Jody Patel.
The pension benefit for the top officials caught the attention of the
California State Auditor, who honed in on the perk in a scathing
report released in January after a nearly year-long investigation of
the bureaucracy, formerly known as the Administrative Office of the
Courts. The new director said the benefit would end July 1st.”

Read the CN story
here:http://www.courthousenews.com/2015/02/19/new-director-of-california-court-agency-cuts-perk-for-top-brass.htm of reforms that
included eliminating a lavish pension benefit for the top brass.

The CN adds that “the controversial perk was cut back in 2012 by Chief
Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, but top executives were still receiving
another 22% in pension contributions from public funds on top of their
salaries, including Chief Operating Officer Curt Childs, Chief
Administrative Officer Curt Soderlund and Chief of Staff Jody Patel.
The pension benefit for the top officials caught the attention of the
California State Auditor, who honed in on the perk in a scathing
report released in January after a nearly year-long investigation of
the bureaucracy, formerly known as the Administrative Office of the
Courts. The new director said the benefit would end July 1st.”

Read the CN story
here:http://www.courthousenews.com/2015/02/19/new-director-of-california-court-agency-cuts-perk-for-top-brass.htm