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Notices aren’t mailed out on time. Family mediators overbook their schedules. And court clerks are less “effective” since losing support personnel. Those were some of the real-life examples a group of union representatives brought to the California Judicial Council on Friday, as council members again tackled the fallout from the worst budget crisis in state history. And things will remain bad and possibly even get worse, according to the unions and judiciary officials, who are predicting bad times until at least 2005. For several months now, judiciary branch leaders have said California’s fiscal woes threaten to undermine modernization and accessibility in the courts. But Friday was the first time that union members appeared before the full council to illustrate exactly how a lack of money slows down justice. The union leaders had another purpose: protecting jobs. “We just hope that we won’t have to bear the brunt of the budget cuts,” said Carole Prescott, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 575 in Los Angeles. The council and Chief Justice Ronald George have repeatedly said layoffs are the last resort as they figure out how to deal with less money from Sacramento. But Los Angeles County courts — the largest in California — have already laid off more than 200 employees, according to union officials. Although the Administrative Office of the Courts has not directed anyone to get rid of staff, it is leaving a significant percentage of cuts up to the local courts themselves. Finance Director Christine Hansen said more layoffs were likely statewide, especially if legislators alter Gov. Gray Davis’ budget proposal for the courts. If it comes to that, Prescott suggested that the council cut “top-heavy” management positions, rather than “those who are helping the public.” Union leaders want to make sure they’re included in future budget discussions. They are among constituents — including sheriffs and counties — who are angry they didn’t have a say when judicial officials met with Davis in January to come up with proposals to save money. Instead of just reducing the amount courts get from the general fund, the governor’s money-saving ideas include allowing non-sheriffs to provide court security, raising fees and electronic court reporting. “Our leadership feels completely back-doored by the council. We had met [with leaders] and developed a proposal, but then the priorities they gave to the governor were different,” said Michelle Castro of Service Employees International Union, which represents nearly all of the approximately 18,000 court employees statewide. “We would have liked to have discussed it with them first,” George said, but the governor’s office asked judicial leaders to keep the proposals secret until Davis could make a public announcement. Court security and electronic reporting will be controversial as legislators and the governor hash out a budget. Even though it is still working with the council as a “partner,” Castro said the union now is taking its case against electronic reporting directly to legislators. Because the shortfall was not caused by court reporters, “it seems highly unfair to make long-term policy decisions in this area,” Castro said. Electronic reporting won’t save money in the short term anyway because courts will have to invest in equipment and a system for owning and maintaining court records, a job currently performed by recorders, Castro added. On Friday, the council authorized cuts to the current budget, as well as reductions for next year. Throughout the crisis, the Judicial Council has floated ideas to save money. On Friday, after the unions suggested courts make a better attempt to collect unpaid fines and forfeitures, Justice Marvin Baxter suggested the council also study reimbursement for the use of appointed appellate defense lawyers. “We shouldn’t have a system where someone is receiving more rights than someone who is paying for counsel,” Baxter said.

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