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Presiding Judge Donna Hitchens is imploring attorneys to do whatever they can to ease the increasing workload of the San Francisco Superior Court’s support staff. The staff is bearing the brunt of the court’s fiscal belt-tightening, Hitchens said Tuesday at a reception of the Lawyers’ Club of San Francisco. The event was to honor the presiding judge, as well as William McGuiness, administrative presiding justice of the First District Court of Appeal. “There are obviously going to be a lot more cuts to come,” Hitchens told the audience of about 60 judges, justices and attorneys. The superior court, which has cut about $2.5 million from a $68 million operating budget since the fiscal year began July 1, found out last week that it has to cut about $816,000 more by June 30, Hitchens said in an interview Wednesday. The fiscal horizon looks even darker, as the court has been alerted by the state it may have to cut an additional $3.4 million to $6.1 million next fiscal year, Hitchens said. “We’ve had a hiring freeze for a year, so we’re down over 50 employees,” out of roughly 550, Hitchens said. That includes positions such as managers, secretaries and legal research attorneys. Given the cuts yet to come, she anticipates the hiring freeze will continue, though she said she’s “committed to do everything I can to avoid layoffs.” “Our greatest fear is that we’re going to have to shut down the civil courts and the filing windows [there] half a day a week” to give the shrinking clerical work force a chance to catch up on paperwork, Hitchens said. If the court has to resort to that, civil court judges could still hold settlement conferences — but not trials — during those hours, she said. The superior court doesn’t have a lot of discretionary functions, so when vacated positions aren’t filled, remaining employees pick up more responsibility and feel the pressure of falling behind in their work, Hitchens said. As for what attorneys can do about it: “I think some of the normal things are to be courteous, understand that there are unavoidable delays now [and] not take frustration out on staff,” Hitchens said. “Maybe in the bigger picture, try to avoid unnecessary filings.” Making a point to praise the support staff would help too, she added. “The whole . . . system would fall apart without the support staff, and they get the least recognition.”

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