SAN FRANCISCO, CA

The state Judicial Council approved a $3.1 million bailout for San Francisco’s courts Friday to prevent the closure of 11 courtrooms and reduce the number of planned layoffs from 177 to 75.

The state’s $350 million cut in judicial funding has hit particularly hard in San Francisco, where court officials said they spent most of their reserves over the last three years to preserve jobs that other counties have eliminated.

Presiding Superior Court Judge Katherine Feinstein said in July that the court would have to lay off 40 percent of its staff and close 25 of the 63 civil courtrooms at 400 McAllister St. in October. She said the cuts would mean waits of up to five years to bring a civil suit to trial and 18 months to get a divorce.

Last week Feinstein announced an agreement with the state courts’ administrative office for state funding that would limit the cutbacks, subject to approval by the Judicial Council, the judiciary’s policymaking body.

But at Friday’s council meeting, the administrative office said the money should come with conditions: San Francisco would have to submit a detailed spending plan to the council for approval and dip into its reserves, currently $4.9 million, if necessary to continue hearing cases.

Those conditions weren’t disclosed during negotiations over the funding and are “unacceptable and frankly insulting,” the San Francisco court’s executive officer, Michael Yuen, told the council. “I will not allow my court to succumb to unnecessary micromanagement of our financial affairs.”

Council members – judges appointed by the state’s chief justice and lawyers appointed by the State Bar – retorted that San Francisco should expect some monitoring of funds that are more than one-fourth of the statewide court system’s emergency reserve.

“You are a mismanaged organization,” council member Mary O’Malley, a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge, told Yuen, citing an audit last year that said the court had mishandled some of its financial accounts.

Tempers soon cooled and the two sides agreed on milder conditions: San Francisco will repay $2.5 million within five years, will report on its use of the funds within six months and will drop a provision that would have required state judicial leaders to seek legislative authority for local courts to charge fees to litigants that are above the statewide fee level.

This article appeared on page C – 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle, September 10, 2011.



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