Mike Sprague, Staff Writer
Created: 12/15/2009 10:37:39 PM PST

In three years, up to nine of the 50 Los Angeles County courthouses may be shuttered as a result of state budget cuts, the county’s presiding judge said.

In early 2010, as many as 300 court employees – in addition to 150 employees expected to leave on their own – will need to be laid off, presiding Judge Charles McCoy said Monday.

That probably would cause the closure of 38 courtrooms, he added. It takes about 10 employees to operate one courtroom.

“This is as a result of budget cuts that are continuing and ongoing,” McCoy said. “Nothing good is going to happen. This is a very sad day for justice in Los Angeles.”

McCoy said no decisions have been made on which courtrooms or courthouses would be closed.

But he said even larger courthouses might be subject to closure.

The supervising judge at Pomona Superior Court said more than half of civil courtrooms in the East District – which includes courthouses in Pomona, El Monte and West Covina – could be closed.

“The impact on all courts, including Pomona, would be extremely significant,” said Judge Daniel Buckley.

The closures will have a negative effect on noncriminal cases, including civil, family law and juvenile cases, McCoy said.

Criminal cases must get priority because defendants are guaranteed a speedy trial.

That means judges and courtrooms that were set aside for civil cases will be moved to criminal ones, McCoy said.

As a result, McCoy and others predicted it could take five years before a civil case would make it to trial.

“It could easily take three to five years because there would be very limited time available for trials. … It’s just a horrific situation,” Buckley said.

The county Superior Court is facing closures because of state budget cuts, McCoy said. While a monthly one-day furlough for all employees has saved about $18 million, that amount will shrink as the number of employees shrinks, he added.

This year, the court must cut $140 million of its $850 million budget and eliminate about 500 positions.

In three years, 34 percent of court employees will either have been laid off or have left voluntarily, McCoy predicted.

One possible temporary solution would be to put off the sale of a $5 billion bond issue to build new courthouses.

The bond was to be paid off by increased fees and fines – already approved by the state Legislature.

“We could use the income stream for a short period of time to support the operations of the court,” McCoy said. “When we emerge from (the recession) we could redirect that income stream back to the bonds.”

Los Angeles County’s share would be about $73 million, McCoy said.

However, the proposal is opposed by the California Judicial Council and 50 of 58 county presiding judges, said Philip Carrizo, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“The chief justice (Ronald George) thinks that replacing courthouses is vital and halting construction of them makes no more sense than halting all highway projects during economic downturns,” Carrizo said.

It’s also not definite that the courts will have to make the budget cuts in the future, he said.

“The Judicial Council is working hard with the Legislature to avoid that,” Carrizo said. “We’ve asked the governor to restore $100million.”

Superior Court Judge Phil Mautino said he believes McCoy’s solution to use the bond revenue set aside for new courthouses makes sense.

“If we built (new) courtrooms they would be empty,” Mautino said. “It’s ridiculous to do that.”

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