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OAKLAND — To hear local judges and lawyers tell it, the effects of court budget reductions are plain. “The cuts that are proposed will either eliminate or seriously reduce access to courts for our most at-risk population,” said Donna Hitchens, presiding judge of San Francisco County Superior Court. Hitchens’ blunt comments came Thursday during the latest in a series of meetings hosted by Sen. Joseph Dunn. The Orange County Democrat, who has been traveling around the state in recent weeks to collect ammo for Sacramento budget negotiations, brought his show to Oakland and heard from judges, lawyers, court executives and even a few of what he called “real people.” Those included Betty Bishop, an elderly woman who described how court staff helped her navigate the complicated procedure for obtaining an elder-abuse restraining order. And Broderick and Robin Page, a husband and wife who said that two years was long enough to wait for a verdict in a personal injury case for their brain-damaged son. If the court budgets are further reduced, Hitchens and others told Dunn, civil cases will take even longer to resolve and people like Bishop will get no help at the courthouse. “Cuts will eliminate services for self-represented litigants,” Hitchens said. Alameda County Superior Court Presiding Judge Barbara Miller said the situation is just as bad in her county. Probate, family law, traffic, small claims — all are being affected by cuts. As the belt tightens, courts will have to shift resources away from civil cases in order to handle an already growing backlog of criminal cases, according to testimony. That’s because state law mandates certain deadlines in criminal matters. Contra Costa County Commissioner Robert Broughton described another phenomenon. As hours are cut and vacancies go unfilled, court workers are becoming more stressed from increased workload and from dealing with irate citizens. Burnout means more workers’ compensation claims and older, more experienced court workers simply leaving the profession, Broughton and Hitchens said. Oakland was the fourth of Dunn’s hearings. Dunn, a partner at trial lawyer powerhouse Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson in Newport Beach who plans to run for attorney general in 2006, has already been to San Diego, Los Angeles and Fresno. There’s at least one more stop planned in Orange County on April 2. The next step will be taking all the doom and gloom back to the Capitol. As chair of the Senate committee in charge of the judicial branch’s budget, Dunn plans to share what he’s heard with his Democrat and Republican colleagues as they negotiate the courts budget. More importantly, Dunn said he hopes people who work in the courts become a vocal group in the same way that health care workers, teachers and other interests are active in Sacramento. “In addition to education, these hearings will also serve as motivation to the bench and bar that they need to be more knowledgeable and active � and become a constituency on behalf of the courts,” Dunn said. Several of the lawyers who spoke Thursday discussed something Dunn and others have already brought up — the need for the courts to find a stable source of funding that is insulated from the now yearly battles over state money. Dunn also hopes the information he collects will help persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger not to look at the courts as a place to trim the state budget. No one from Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance has attended the meetings. For 2004-05, the governor has proposed cutting $70 million out of the judicial branch’s $2.5 billion budget. In addition, Schwarzenegger’s proposal, which was released in January, did not fund several mandatory expenses the state normally pays for, including higher security costs, judges’ retirements and salary increases. Those add up to about $100 million, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Next year’s hits will exacerbate problems with the current budget due to less money from filing fees and other shortfalls. AOC financial guru Christine Hansen said this year’s budget already is running a deficit estimated at $40 million. Although Chief Justice Ronald George and other court officials are optimistic that the politicians will lessen next year’s proposed cuts and give courts the money they need, Dunn is less confident. He said that even with the recent passage of Schwarzenegger’s deficit reduction bonds, the state still isn’t out of the woods. With a $12 billion deficit looming, Dunn said, politicians will still need to find places to cut. “Will these hearings ultimately affect the budget? That’s an unknown at this point,” Dunn said. “Finding an additional $12 billion in cuts when the other constituencies have such vocal advocates — courts have no constituency — makes courts extremely vulnerable.”

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