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Massive Cut to Court Budget Stalls Most Civil Cases

"Our citizens will have to wait for years to peacefully resolve their disputes," says judge

Katherine Feinstein, Courtmaggedon

The San Francisco Superior Court mailed out pink slips to more than 40 percent of its staff Monday, with Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein telling reporters state budget cuts were forcing the court to virtually dismantle its civil division.

"We're broke," Feinstein told reporters, "and we're left with one painful option for all practical purposes: to dismantle our court."

As of Oct. 3, the court will close will 25 of San Francisco's 63 courtrooms, all in the civil division, Feinstein said. No criminal courtrooms will be shuttered.

The cuts are the result of a state budget that eliminated $350 million in operating costs from courts throughout California, leaving the San Francisco Superior Court with a $13.75 million deficit.

"Our citizens will have to wait for years to peacefully resolve their disputes," Feinstein said. There will be "nowhere to go to sue an unscrupulous roommate, get a divorce or sue a reckless driver who injured you in a car accident."

While individuals will still be able to file lawsuits, it will take five years before most cases move beyond filing. Feinstein said it will take 18 months to obtain a divorce or settle a child custody dispute.

Only eviction cases and those facing dismissal because they run up against statutory time limits will proceed to trial, she said. 

"There is going to be tremendous suffering on a whole range of issues touching on all aspects of human behavior," Peter Keane, dean emeritus at the Golden Gate University School of Law, said in an interview.

Feinstein described the cuts as inevitable. The Judicial Council of California, which manages the state court system, has scheduled a meeting for Friday to discuss funding matters. 

Judicial Council spokesman Philip Carrizosa told The Bay Citizen last week that there's little possibility his agency will be able to bail out San Francisco, because the state Legislature already "raided" $310 million from the courts' capital improvements fund to balance the state budget.

In a statement released after Feinstein's press conference, Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, the Chief Justice of California's Supreme Court, said she was "deeply concerned" about the cuts, which she said could jeopardize "basic civil rights."

The Judicial Council, she said, "will continue to look for ways to search for solutions to alleviate the impact of these unprecedented cuts in the courts’ budget.”

Keane, who spent 20 years in the San Francisco Public Defender's Office before launching his academic career, said the cuts represent the worst crisis of his career.

For years, he said, "we always would play 'the sky is falling' and play it as effectively as we could. But now, very little of it is posturing. It’s all substantive."

Outside Feinstein's press conference in the Civic Center Courthouse, court technician Adrienne Williams said she believed she would be among the 200 employees receiving pink slips. Williams said her husband, who is employed at the San Francisco Unified School District, could also be laid off this year if state tax receipts fall below projections.

The couple have six children, and Williams said she was worried they would lose their Daly City home.

"I have no more tears left," she said. "I can only laugh."

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