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.

Central California Justice Among The Nation’s Most Rationed Court

Eastern California is home to some of the nation’s most fertile agricultural regions, but it’s also growing a reputation as the nation’s slowest federal court district. Bakersfieldnow, the online home of ABC’s Eyewitness News in the area, explains in a new report that “… the problem area is the Eastern District of the 9th Circuit Court that serves much of the eastern half of the state, from Bakersfield to the Oregon border.

The story is illustrated with the story of Wesley Morris, a gun-store owner involved in a lawsuit against the state. The plaintiffs, affiliated with the Calguns Foundation, are “… bringing a first amendment challenge to an old state law that regulates handgun advertising.”
Morris’ group filed their case in 2014. It’s not scheduled for trial until 2017. And the news report says that “… a three year wait for a civil case is not uncommon in the Valley. It’s the average, according to federal data obtained by Eyewitness News via public record request. Nationwide, the average civil case takes 26.8 months to finish. In the Eastern District of our circuit court, the average is 37.8 months.”

Read about the rationing here:

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. 

Most Immigration Judges Can Retire Now If They Want

With a Sept. 30 deadline passed, more than half of the United States 247 immigration judges, staffing 58 courts nationwide, are eligible to retire. This as the nation faces an immigration courts backlog of more than 450,000 cases. The Los Angeles Times offers a truly alarming look at the situation, starting with outlining that some judges – who are not actually federal judges but employees of the Justice Department – preside over thousands of cases.
The LAT also notes that “… the U.S. attorney general appoints immigration judges. Officials have already started ‘an aggressive hiring process,’ said Kathryn Mattingly, an immigration court spokeswoman. They have hired 18 judges, five more will start this fiscal year, and they plan to hire an additional 67, she said. Last fiscal year, about 100 judges were eligible to retire, but only 13 did, she said.” But the paper quotes current judges lamenting how much more difficult working conditions have become.

WSJ Documents Delay, Crisis In Federal Civil Courts

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that civil suits are piling up in the nation’s federal courts, leading to multiple-year delays in cases involving civil rights, personal injury and disputes over Social Security benefits. The Journal’s Joe Palazzolo notes that “… more than 330,000 such cases were pending as of last October—a record—up nearly 20% since 2004, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The number of cases awaiting resolution for three years or more exceeded 30,000 for the fifth time in the past decade.”
Palazzolo singles out the federal court for California’s Eastern District as having  “a particularly deep backlog,” in part because 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.
A key quote from a California judge: “Over the years I’ve received several letters from people indicating, ‘Even if I win this case now, my business has failed because of the delay. How is this justice? [and] the simple answer, which I cannot give them, is this: It is not justice. We know it.”
It will surprise few that the challenge boils down to politics. Read the WSJ story here.

New Report Laments San Bernardino Court Situation

Even in a state where court budget shortfalls have created years-long waits for civil trials and closed more than 50 courthouses, the situation in San Bernardino County remains particularly harsh. Now a new report, just in time for state budget season, is detailing just how harsh.
The Daily Press in Victorville reports that, “… for starters, the county is facing a $62.7 million funding gap for 2015, meaning that its missing 46 percent of the $137.8 million that was calculated to be needed per workload-based allocation, according to a report March 25 by the state’s Judicial Branch.”
The report also notes that “… since fiscal year 2007, San Bernardino County courthouses in Twin Peaks, Redlands, Chino, Needles and Big Bear have closed. A courtroom in Joshua Tree was also shuttered in fiscal year 2007.”
It’s a solid reminder that years of cuts have left many judicial systems in shambles. Read about one of those systems here.

Civil Court Rationing Reaches Vermont

You can add Vermont to the list of states feeling the rationing pinch for court budgets, and like California two years ago and the rest of the country over time the civil courts are feeling the most pressure. The Vermont Association of Justice, a stakeholder group, wrote a letter to lawmakers outlining the challenge and noting that”… while abuse and other cases take priority, civil cases remain unresolved. Under the current conditions, attorneys warn clients that it will likely take 18 to 26 months before a judge hears a two-day civil jury trial. It may take as long as four months to schedule a three-hour-long case.”

A courts advocate offered this example: If an injured person is pursuing a case against a national insurance company, the insurance company can afford to wait. The injured person, however, is more likely to need the money sooner to pay for medical bills or other expenses. Instead of waiting for a court time, the insured person may agree to settle for less than their claim is worth.

Meanwhile, civil court delays are expected to get worse.

Read more here.

One-Day Divorce Heralded As Court Innovation

The Associated Press is profiling a California judge as an innovator for his one-day divorce process, a program inspired in some measure by $1 billion in court budget cuts during the recession. The AP notes that “… layoffs sapped employee morale, 52 courthouses closed across the state and the trying experience of going to court has become more tedious with longer lines, frustrating hearing delays and time-consuming waits on the phone.”
“Against that backdrop,” says the AP,”recent innovations seem like baby steps, but they have made it simpler to serve jury duty, pay traffic fines or get a restraining order in some counties. Lawyers in some courts can now schedule hearings online, file motions over the web and get judge’s orders electronically before they leave court.”
See a reminder that the California budget cuts are the new normal here.

Thousands Of Immigration Cases Delayed Until At Least 2019

The Dallas Morning News is reporting that “… thousands of immigrants seeking legalization through the U.S. court system have had their hearings canceled and are being told by the government that it may be 2019 or later before their futures are resolved.” The paper says that “… immigration lawyers in cities that absorbed a large share of those cases, including New York, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Denver, say they’ve had hearings canceled with little notice and received no new court dates. Work permits, green cards, asylum claims, and family reunifications hang in the balance.”
By way of background, the cancellations began began to skyrocket over the summer as the Justice Department prioritized the tens of thousands of Central American migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them mothers with children and the high-profile arrival of unaccompanied minors.
The Dallas newspaper report quotes David Martin, a law professor at the University of Virginia who worked for two Democratic presidents, who “criticized Congress and the Obama administration for not funding more immigration judges.” He also told the paper that “… you fund more investigators, more detention space, more border patrol, almost all of these are going to produce some kind of immigration court case… you are putting a lot more people into the system. It’s just going to be a big bottleneck unless you increase the size of that pipeline.” Read the story here.

Gov. Adds Cash For Courts


Gov. Jerry Brown – Photo:

It seems Gov. Jerry Brown is increasing California judicial branch funding this year, not only moving closer to pre-recession levels but also singling our specific areas – like employee benefits – to illustrate where the money should go. The Mercury-News explains that “… the governor’s 2015-16 budget bumps the state court system’s budget from last year’s $3.29 billion to $3.47 billion, with most of that increase headed to the 58 trial courts around California hit hardest by past cutbacks. Courts in counties across the state, including Bay Area systems in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, have been forced to reduce public hours, lay off employees and shutter remote courthouses as a result of prior cuts that at one point exceeded $1 billion over several years. Under the governor’s budget, the judiciary’s budget would inch closer to the $3.7 billion allocated in 2007-08. In fact, with the use of trial court reserve money required under previous budgets, the governor’s staff pegs spending on the judicial branch at about $3.7 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Read the story here.