State budget cuts -- and a host of other factors -- are resulting in lengthy delays and stretching resources at Kern County Superior Court.
High-dollar civil cases used to take about 12 months to go to trial, said county Court Administrator Terry McNally. Now they're averaging about 15 months, with more complex cases pushed back 18 to 24 months.
There are five court reporter vacancies, which have at times forced staff to pull court reporters out of civil courts and put them in criminal courts because of Constitutional requirements guaranteeing a speedy trial in criminal cases, McNally said. Recently, attorneys in a civil case involving Aera Energy LLC were authorized to bring in their own court reporters.
And even criminal cases have seen delays. Just recently the preliminary hearing for John Swearengin, the Kern County Sheriff's deputy charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, was postponed to the end of this month.
Kern County Superior Court is down about 115 positions from last summer, McNally said. The state slashed $9.9 million this fiscal year from the county court system, and next year they're expected to lose $3.5 million to $3.7 million.
"Before all is said and done, I'd forecast we'll have about 150 vacancies (this year)," he said.
The cutbacks are playing out in varying degrees throughout the state. Chief Justice of California Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye is scheduled to deliver her "State of the Judiciary" Address before a joint session of the California Legislature at 4 p.m. Monday.
Kern County Presiding Judge Colette M. Humphrey said she understands the difficult times the state has been in over the past few years.
"However, the courts have given back more than their share in our reduced budget allocations," Humphrey said. "Any additional reductions will result in a serious, adverse impact on service levels and a commensurate lack of access for people to their local courts."
Defense attorney David A. Torres noted that, while the county has seen some pretty big cuts, things could be a lot worse. Kern County hasn't closed any outlying courts the way Los Angeles and Fresno counties have done.
Torres is on the State Bar of California's Board of Trustees and The Bench-Bar Coalition, and receives updates regarding the cuts' impact on counties throughout the state.
He said Fresno County no longer has any outlying courts in operation. No matter where a person lives in the county there's only one court location to which they can respond, meaning significant driving times and hardship for some residents.
"We haven't been pushed to that because of the way our local judiciary and administrator have run the courts," Torres said.
He called Kern County "a model of efficiency" in how its courts are run.
Michael C. Lukehart, another local defense attorney, laid part of the blame for court delays on prosecutors. He said there's a natural tendency on the part of prosecutors and law enforcement to prosecute to the maximum capacity of the courts' ability to handle cases.
It's not a new tactic, Lukehart said, but it's having more of an impact on the courts now that resources have been cut. The budget isn't so much the issue as is societal priorities, and there's more money in prosecution, he said.
"You can devote an infinite amount of resources to the courts and they will be filled up immediately with aggressive prosecutors," Lukehart said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Pafford said he doesn't agree with Lukehart, and that prosecutors examine every case on an individual basis before deciding what, if any, charges to file.
Pafford said he's noticed the complete opposite happen on certain cases in that defense attorneys won't settle at readiness hearings and instead wait until after a case gets sent to trial in the hope that the judge will negotiate with them. Pafford said the position of the district attorney's office is that they offer their best deal at the preliminary hearing.
Still, Pafford said he doesn't think it's possible to pinpoint any one reason for the delays. While budget cuts have slashed resources, caseloads have continued to increase.
Pafford said 500 more cases were sent to the prosecutor's office this January and February than were in January and February of last year, and last year the numbers had spiked from 2011.
"Crime's still going up," he said.
The Sacramento Bee reported earlier this year that there have been about $1.2 billion in total general fund cutbacks statewide since 2008, including $475 million from trial courts. The Bee said the Administrative Office of the Courts estimated in October that trial courts statewide were operating with about 250 fewer judicial officers than needed. Judicial officers includes justices, judges, commissioners and referees.
The Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the California courts, voted in late February to approve a plan that delays 11 more courthouse construction projects pending restoration of court construction funds in the state budget for fiscal year 2013--14.
"We are seeking the return of all or a portion of those funds that were raised from court users for the express purpose of building court facilities," Justice Brad Hill, chairman of the Court Facilities Working Group and Administrative Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District, said in a news release. "We understand the difficult fiscal environment the state is in, but further delay will imperil our vital infrastructure and compromise the safety of those citizens who use our courts."