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If You Are Not a Party to a Lawsuit, Good For You! However, if You Are or Ever Will Be, Well, Bless Your Heart.

Written by:  Patricia I. James**

It is no secret that the State of California, as well as the rest of the United States, and probably the rest of the world, are undergoing a financial crisis.  Post #16 addressed the problems of receiving healthcare.  This post addresses the problems of your access to justice.

According to a news release from the San Diego Superior Court dated June 20, 2012, it faced cuts of as much as $14 million for the 2012-2013 fiscal year and could rise to $40 million for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.   However, a news release dated September 20, 2012 indicates that the cut is actually $33 million for 2012-2013.

Presiding Judge Robert Tentracosta said “[t]he cuts envisioned by our budget reduction plan will affect every judge, court employee and ultimately the litigants, court users and citizens of San Diego County.”

The following information is from the court’s website at http://www.sdcourt.ca.gov/portal/page?_pageid=55,1056987&_dad=portal&_schema=PORTAL

Now Closed:

  • Six downtown criminal courtrooms
  • North County probate court
  • Juvenile dependency courtroom
  • A downtown civil courtroom
  • Ramona branch

Closing October 15, 2012:

Civil Department 30 in North County.  The cases in that department will be assigned to four other judges.

November 5, 2012:

East and South County Division civil business offices will not accept filings in new civil cases and petitions (including small claims), with the exception of Civil Harassment/Elder Abuse cases.

Closing November 19, 2012:

  • One independent calendar civil courtroom in East County, El Cajon
  • One independent calendar civil courtroom in South County, Chula Vista
  • Civil business offices in East County and South County will no longer accept any civil filings (including small claims), except those in Civil Harassment/Elder Abuse cases.

December 13, 2012:

Small claims cases will no longer be heard in the East and South County Divisions.

Closing December 28, 2012:

The East and South County Divisions will close to the public at the end of this business day.  These  matters will then be handled at the old courthouse, central division, at 220 West Broadway, San Diego.

Other Issues: 

September 7, 2012:

The San Diego Superior Court business offices, where cases are filed, started closing at noon and will do so every Friday.  (I shuddered to think how many statutes of limitations were blown when some attorneys failed to remember that early closing and could not timely file their cases that day.  However, since the news release indicates that there are drop boxes for filing papers or submitting payments, I am hoping that was averted).  Nonetheless, emergency court matters such as temporary restraining orders will continue to be handled until the end of the business day on Fridays.

November 5, 2012:

Although court reporters will still be provided in criminal felony, family and juvenile court matters, they will not be provided by the court in civil proceedings.

December 2, 2012: 

Small claims night court, held at the Kearny Mesa branch, will go from one night a week to one night a month, starting the first Thursday in December.

December 28, 2012:

Official court reporters will only be available for family matters for domestic violence restraining order hearings, contempt hearings and request-for-order hearings of 40 minutes or less.

With regard to the elimination of court-provided court reporters, this means that, if you want a transcript of a hearing or trial, you will have to hire a court reporter to take down the proceedings.  With the exception of stipulating to a court reporter not on the court-approved list, privately-retained court reporters must be appointed by the court in each matter.  For those of you who are wondering, state law prohibits the court from using recording equipment as an alternative in most civil cases.

This move will eliminate 30 court reporter positions, the first of up to 75 layoffs anticipated for this fiscal year.

In an interview with Diana Crofts-Pelayo, found at http://www.kpbs.org/news/2012/jun/20/san-diego-superior-court-facing-14-million-cuts/, Assistant Presiding Judge David Danielsen stated that, though this fiscal year’s budget reduction looks bleak, the 2013-2014 fiscal year will be worse with a projected $26 million in funding cuts.   He continued, “[t[hose first year cuts are not going to be the ones that make a significant difference, it’s the second year that we’re going to find we’re going to be making even tougher decisions affecting more courtrooms.  I think that’s when the real slowdown is going to hit.”  Judge Danielsen said that the harm that is going to be caused by these cuts will be tangible and palpable very quickly.

Tentative plans for fiscal year 2013/2014 according to the Court’s June 20, 2012 news release: 

  • Closure and restructuring of 30 additional courtrooms.  These closures and restructuring will result in the elimination of 25 courtroom clerks, 2 court reporters, 5 independent calendar clerks, 7 staff attorneys and 21 court commissioners.
  • Reductions in Family Court courtroom and support department operations.
  • Elimination of 11 independent calendar clerk positions supporting the civil independent calendar departments.
  • Additional reductions in non-courtroom staff (17 positions).
  • Centralizing the filing and processing of all small claims filing in the Central Division.
  • Closure of all civil business office operations in East and South County.  All civil paperwork will be processed at the Downtown Courthouse or the North County Courthouse.
  • Two days of unpaid work furlough per month for all court employees beginning July 2013.

According to another article from KPBS.org, dated September 12, 2012, found at http://www.kpbs.org/news/2012/sep/12/how-san-diego-superior-court-affected-cuts/, Assistant Presiding Judge Danielsen stated that the courts will lose 200 additional employees.  (I am unclear at to whether that is less than the 250 layoffs anticipated in June or whether that is an additional 200 layoffs).   He also said that seven more courtrooms will be shuttered and those judges will be reassigned elsewhere but that the court clerks could be laid off.  Therefore, although the amount of work remains the same, the remaining courtrooms will be handling more cases.

Now, what does this mean to you?   It means that you better play nice.  Otherwise, you get into a dispute with your neighbor or whomever, and you want to take it to court, you could be looking at a wait of, say, five years or more before you get that day in court.

The San Diego Superior Court system has been on fast-track for a number of years.  That means that a case was supposed to go to trial no later than one year after its filing date or, at the very latest, eighteen months.  That hasn’t always worked out but, in my experience, the judges have tried very hard to meet those deadlines.

Now, let’s go back in time and place to 2005, County of Riverside.  If memory serves, that County was overwhelmed by a dramatic increase in population due to the housing bubble and resulting construction of affordable housing or vice versa.  In addition, criminal cases were given first priority over civil cases.  Thus, the dates for civil trials were being continued to five years or more past their filing date.

As a result, I would cringe whenever I thought we had to file a case in Riverside County.   I just wanted all of our cases to be in San Diego County where I knew they would not languish.  Well, those days are over.

Remember Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the case in Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House,” where the case had gone on so long that the original litigants were dead?  Welcome to your future.

** No portion of this Post is intended to constitute legal advice.  The views expressed are solely those of the author.