SAN FRANCISCO – Although San Francisco Superior Court has tried to avoid serious cutbacks by freezing open positions and travel, the $14.3 million deficit it faces for fiscal year 2010-2011 is forcing the court to consider more drastic measures.

Court officials are discussing the possibility of staff reductions, additional court closure days and shuttering 14 civil departments – about half of the court’s civil departments – moves that could cause delays in trials of about 13 months, according to an announcement the court released today.

San Francisco plaintiffs’ attorney Micha Star Liberty, who has several employment and personal injury cases pending in the court, expressed great concern at the idea of the delays.

“It would be devastating to my clients,” said Liberty, managing partner of Liberty Law Office. “I represent human beings who have been wronged, and they deserve their opportunities to seek justice. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.”

The state is facing a more than $20 billion shortfall between this fiscal year and next, causing the judicial branch to brace for more cuts. The San Francisco court has already used the majority of its reserve, leaving only $500,000 for the upcoming year, its announcement said.

In an attempt to minimize costs, the court has maintained a hiring, expenditure and travel freeze since April, and it closes the third Wednesday of each month, resulting in a 4.62 percent pay cut for its staff. It is currently keeping vacant 49 nonjudicial positions out of 590. Also, the court’s bench this month voted in favor of eliminating funding for the assistant chief executive officer position on Dec. 31 upon the retirement of Sherri D. Camps, according to Monday’s statement. Camps has held the job since January 2008 with a salary of $166,257.

Orange and Contra Costa counties have also chopped similar positions.

“Like other courts in the state, the San Francisco Superior Court has been forced to eliminate the ACEO position due to a budget scenario that is only getting worse,” Presiding Judge James J. McBride said in a statement.

San Francisco is still planning to fill its chief executive officer position after longtime CEO Gordon Park-Li retires in February, McBride said. The bench voted in a Dec. 1 meeting to appoint Claire Williams, director of the Unified Family Court, to serve as an interim CEO while the court searches for a permanent replacement.

Attorneys who deal with other aspects of civil litigation are concerned their trials will fall behind if the court decides to cut civil departments.

Eric J. Sinrod, a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris who handles high-tech, real estate and patent disputes for both plaintiffs and defense clients, said delays usually hurt plaintiffs the most, but could also cost defendants money if they have experts and witnesses waiting around for trials to begin.

“If there really are delays in Superior Court, what do the parties do?” he said. “They could start pursuing more alternative dispute resolution. You don’t necessarily have to be dictated by the timing of the courts.”

By Dhyana Levey

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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