After three years of budget reductions, Napa County courts are bracing for yet more cuts after Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved a budget allocating $350 million less to California’s judicial branch.
The Napa budget is expected to be about $11 million, down from $12.3 million three years ago, said Richard Feldstein, the Napa Courts executive officer.
This may mean that some civil proceedings such as divorces take longer than in the past, Feldstein said.
“Unfortunately, these latest severe budget cuts will most likely result in the delays and lower level of service that we have worked so hard to avoid,” said Diane Price, presiding judge for the Superior Court of Napa County.
“The adage that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ is very true and we will continue to take all reasonable steps possible to minimize the impact on our community’s access to justice services,” she said before the vote. “We understand that the court must function within the reality of the current economic climate. However, while it is too soon to know the specifics, there will certainly be negative consequences to our local justice system.”
The Judicial Council of California, the state’s policy-making group, met Friday in San Francisco to decide on how to allocate the funds to run the state courts. Earlier in the week, Feldstein estimated the courts’ management team, which includes him and the county’s Human Resources department, would need to spend seven to 10 days assessing the outcome.
The vast majority of the courts’ budget is set by the state Legislature, said Feldstein, who compared the courts’ operations to a school district’s.
While the courts receive the vast majority of their funds through the state, local officials are the ones who must figure how to spend the money, he said. Napa County Courts staff, including Feldstein, are court employees. Judges, he said, are state employees.
Other counties, including San Francisco, have announced major layoffs. But so far, Napa courts have coped with the economic downturn through other means, including keeping vacant positions unfilled and establishing a furlough program three years ago, Feldstein said.
Since 2005, the courts’ labor force has decreased by 10 percent at a time when the number of family law and civil filings have increased in the economic downturn, Feldstein said.
In 2005, there were 92 employees, he said. But by 2010-11, Napa courts employed 81 people. Employees have also postponed a 3.5 percent increase in their cost-of-living allowance.
There were 12 furlough days in 2009-10, nine furlough days in 2010-11, and another nine furlough days this year, Feldstein said.
“It has been pretty significant,” he said, referring to the various measures taken so far.
Feldstein expects more cuts in 2012-13.
The Judicial Council of California may find funds to help the courts plug the $350 million budget gap by pulling money from other programs, including funds for new court facilities. But next year, these funds won’t be available, he said.
Napa County District Attorney Gary Lieberstein said court closures would be detrimental to the public and the efficiency of the justice system.
“Hanging a closed sign on the door to the courthouse should certainly be avoided at all costs (literally),” Lieberstein said in an email.
Paul Carey, president of the Napa County Bar Association, said his organization has not spoken on the cuts. “We can’t evaluate until we know the extent of the cuts,” he said.
Feldstein said criminal proceedings take priority because hearings have to be conducted within specified time periods. About 1,300 felony cases are filed every year, according to Napa County Courts’ statistics.
James V. Jones, a civil and criminal attorney in Napa who is a member of a liaison committee to the courts, said Napa County has a relatively low number of criminal cases compared to neighboring communities. “We don’t have a murder every week,” he said.
“At the moment, Napa County is one of the very best in the state for moving civil cases to completion,” Jones said. “But if these cuts come, that may slow things down.”