Court employees nationwide are facing salary freezes and layoffs as states slash judicial budgets to make up for lost revenues. While state courts struggle to serve the public with less money, some legal experts say the financial crisis is forcing courthouses to become efficient, streamlined operations.

During fiscal year 2011, 29 state court systems experienced significant budget cuts, according to the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts (NCSC). In response, many courts imposed staff layoffs, increased fines and fees, and shortened courthouse hours. In California, the legislature cut $350 million from the judiciary budget for the new fiscal year, which started July 1. The Judicial Council, the state courts' policymaking body, allocated the budget cuts on July 22 by eliminating 6.8 percent in funding from California's 58 trial courts, 9.7 percent from the state Supreme Court and six Courts of Appeal, and 12 percent from the Council and its staff organization, the Administrative Office of the Courts, according to a press release.

The effects of the budget cuts will vary from court to court, says Philip Carrizosa, spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the Courts. San Francisco's Superior Court, for example, already has announced that it would lay off 200 employees and close 25 courtrooms. “We've never had cuts this drastic in the history of the California courts,” Carrizosa says.

Courts must find ways to streamline their operations, says Daniel Hall, NCSC's vice president for Court Consulting Services. “You can take a bleak look, but I think that it's also an opportunity for courts to look at how well [they] deliver services to the public and in what ways they can provide services better and faster in this new economy,” he says.

For example, on July 1, New Hampshire merged its district and probate courts and Family Division into a single Circuit Court. The new District, Probate and Family Divisions of the Circuit Court went into effect on July 1 and is estimated to save $1.4 million annually, says Circuit Court Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly. The restructure includes reducing the duties of the 10 registrars of probate and cutting their salaries to just $100 per year in an effort to phase the jobs out. The work now will be done in the Circuit Clerk's office with the probate division, saving $922,000 annually. “If we hadn't changed the way we do business, our response would have had to have been to lay off far more people than ended up being laid off or retiring early, and that absolutely would have meant less access [to the courts] for the public,” Kelly says.

Cut to the quick

For a state-by-state look at cost-saving measures courts are implementing, visit the NCSC website at www.ncsc.org/Information-and-Resources/Budget-Resource-Center.aspx. The site includes an interactive map to look up actions each state has taken, or visitors can browse for specific actions, such as “staff layoffs” and “salary reductions.”

Gail Short is a Birmingham, Ala.-based freelance writer.

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