The moves are the latest wave of major budget cuts that officials say have devastated the court system here and around the state.
The courts in Santa Barbara County have a $27.2 million budget this fiscal year — down from $42 million in 2009, a 35 percent reduction.
Although Gov. Jerry Brown has worked to turn around the state’s budget woes, the court system has continued to suffer, and that reality is playing out every day in Santa Barbara County.
“We’re beyond cutting to the bone; we’re amputating limbs,” said Darrel Parker, executive officer for the Santa Barbara County Superior Court. “It’s getting worse every day. On a scale of one-to-10, it’s a 10.”
Here’s a snapshot of how these budget cuts are playing out in the local court system:
» Civil judgments are running more than five months behind.
» Child custody mediations that once took three weeks to schedule now take five weeks.
» Divorce judgments are more than six months behind.
» Courts have a 26-percent vacancy rate in personnel.
» The various clerk offices close to the public at 3 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m.
All of this translates into real-life problems for the public.
The delays in divorce judgments hurt adults who need an official statement from the court to remarry, enroll in new health benefits, and move on with their lives.
Later this year, the county plans to close the Juvenile Court in Goleta and transfer services to Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.
It also will reduce traffic-court services in the Solvang to one day a week, meaning people who get speeding tickets in Solvang and the Santa Ynez Valley will have to go to Lompoc to challenge them.
More bad news arrived at the courts this week. Parker will have to find a way to cut an additional $193,000 from his 2015 budget because of a financial error by the state that affects all counties. Statewide the, shortfall is $22.7 million.
“I don’t know yet how I am going to deal with it,” Parker said.
Parker said he is considering closing one of the security lines at the Figueroa criminal court building in downtown Santa Barbara.
Currently there are two security lines to check for weapons, intended to separate attorneys from getting screened alongside people they may be facing in court. All people, except for judges, may have to use the same line, if Parker goes that route.
With payroll accounting for 81 percent of the budget, an unfunded pension and health-care liability of $512,000, and the cost of health benefits rising by $90,000 next year, the local courts don’t have any fat to cut, Parker said.
The latest budget blows follow a pattern of cutbacks that have steadily eroded the court system locally and statewide, and delayed justice for litigants along the way.
In Santa Barbara County, one in four court administrative and clerical positions are unfilled, which means those who remain are doubling or tripling up on their workloads, officials said. At one time, judges each had their own secretaries, but now they share administrative staff.
Clerical workers struggle to keep up with the paperwork filed by both lawyers and self-represented litigants, a situation that often leads to mistakes and ultimately delays in court. Judges often are left with no choice but to delay court proceedings because litigants and lawyers did not fill out the paperwork properly or didn’t fill it out at all.
“At a 26 percent vacancy rate, you can’t keep up with the work,” Parker said. “Continuances occur because documents don’t make it to calendar on time. Those things happen every day.”
Court records and documents often sit untouched because clerical staff has not had time to get to it. Counter workers will accept the paperwork at the counter, but there is no staff to process the paperwork on the back end.
To help fight the backlog, the courts have decided to cut the counter hours by 90 minutes per day. Instead of closing at 4:30 p.m., the courts close the records and clerk counters at 3 p.m. Although the doors close to the public at 3 p.m., clerical staff works another two hours — just to catch up.
A person taking public transportation might have to get off work as early as 2:30 p.m. just to make it to the courthouse on time to file a document.
“It’s a pain in the neck,” Parker said. “It gives us two hours of downtime to get caught up without interruption.”
The backlog is so bad that the courts no longer have the time to purge records. Instead, the records stack up behind the desks and counters at the courthouse and in storage units. The courts pay $49,000 a year to store old files.
“We no longer purge records,” Parker said. “We just stopped doing it.”
Files 5-feet high are stacked up in the back of the clerks’ office because they have not been processed or digitized.
“There’s a slow degradation in the quality of justice and the access to justice,” said George Eskin, who retired as a full-time judge in 2013, but still takes occasional cases in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. “Nothing happy happens in a courthouse. Everyone who comes here is wounded.”
Eskin said he has seen people break down sobbing because the doors are closed when they need to file paperwork.
Among the biggest hits to the court system is in the area of family law, which includes divorces and child-custody issues.
“We’re the red-headed step-child of the court system,” said Vanessa Kirker Wright, an attorney with nearly 20 years of family law experience in Santa Barbara County. “We’re in the dinosaur ages.”
In 2013, the court saw 1,732 family law matters, 781 in Santa Barbara and 951 in Santa Maria. More than 400 of those were domestic-violence cases.
Of the cases in Santa Barbara, 522 included self-represented litigants. In Santa Maria, the number was 621.
The courts have a hard time keeping up with that volume.
“It takes a lot longer to get a simple judgment through,” Kirker Wright said.
The attorney and others said that the loss of institutional knowledge has wrecked much of the previous harmony of the court system.
Experienced clerks who knew how to read the forms could easily let attorneys or self-represented litigants know if there was a problem with the documents. Now that doesn’t happen, which leads to delays when the matters come up in court.
Kirker Wright said that in divorce cases, where families often rip apart their personal lives over finances, property and children, cuts to services in family law affect the most vulnerable.
“You see people at their worst pretty constantly,” Kirker Wright said. “Custody issues are the most difficult.”
Family law Judge Thomas P. Anderle sees it every day in court. Many of the people who come before him are self-represented. He frequently must continue a case because the litigants have not filled out the paperwork correctly or paperwork has not been processed.
“They come to court hoping to get something resolved and it’s not,” Anderle said. “I can’t process a case if I don’t have the information I need. In the old days we had people who could work with people on these forms. These family law forms are complicated.”
Anderle said the courts should be there to facilitate a process that is already extraordinarily difficult and emotionally taxing on those going through it.
“A lot of these cases involve kids,” Anderle said.
Too often, he said, he sees people simply get frustrated with the system and check out, which defeats the purpose of seeking a court resolution.
“I think family law gets hit the most because of the emotional harm it causes,” Anderle said. “There’s this feeling of raw emotion. These people are mad at each other. The people in family law get hurt the most when there are these cuts.
"They get cut twice, once in their personal lives and again in the judicial courts.”
Barbara Liss, a probate paralegal and member of the Santa Barbara Paralegal Association, advocates on behalf of paralegals to boost the court system. Paralegals, who work either for attorneys or by themselves on court matters, interact with the courts and court clerks on a daily basis.
“I am really worried about the courts losing more staff,” she said. “They are losing the most experienced staff. The cumulative knowledge is bereft in the system. There’s a higher level of mistakes and a slower process.”
She said the state and the governor need to prioritize the courts again.
“Money needs to trickle down to the trial court system and not stay in Sacramento,” Liss said.
“If you can’t get orders out quickly, you don’t have justice served,” Liss said. “Everybody needs the courts. The public is not getting the benefit of their constitutional rights to the courts, and that is the state government’s fault.”
With little resolution in sight, some court officials believe technology may be the answer.
Judge Eskin said the public would benefit if the court invited an independent audit of its case-management calendar system. With fewer staff people, officials could streamline the process by improving technology, he said.
Eskin noted that behind the scenes in the courthouse, desks are unoccupied, whole offices are empty, and “cases often don’t appear on calendar.”
“Now one person is doing the job of three,” Eskin said. “Mistakes happen when people are overworked.”
Many of the court officials are particularly peeved about Brown’s decision to strip courts of their reserves. The courts used to have $10 million in reserves, but the state mandated that the courts could only keep a reserve of 1 percent in its budget.
The courts need a culture change in attitude, Eskin said.
“My biggest frustration was the resistance to considering change,” he said. “My biggest frustration was trying to figure out if there’s a better way to do things.”
It’s a question that Parker is also trying to answer.
“One of the things we have to do is provide services in a different way than we have in the past,” Parker said.
He hopes to move quickly to digitize court records and allow the public to have more access to documents online.
For now, though, little relief is in sight.
“We’re faced with further reductions,” Parker said. “We’re amputating limbs and applying tourniquets to stop the bleeding.”