Massive Los Angeles County court layoffs set to begin

Squeezed by state budgets cutbacks, the Los Angeles County court system is launching massive job layoffs, pay cuts and transfers, court officials said Thursday.

Cutbacks that will be implemented Friday will affect 431 court employees and 56 courtrooms throughout the nation's largest superior court system.

Presiding Judge Lee Smalley Edmon bemoaned the loss of longtime employees as well as the impact on public services.

"We are laying off people who are committed to serving the public," she said. "It is a terrible loss both to these dedicated employees and to the public."

The union representing state and municipal employees called Friday's action a "freeze on justice in Los Angeles" and warned that the county would experience "an end to timely justice" with cases being delayed for years, particularly in civil courts.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees -- AFSCME -- planned to have representatives on hand to assist employees who will not know they are losing their jobs until they are informed individually Friday.

A spokeswoman for the California Judicial Council said other courts in the state will also be impacted by the budget cuts but will handle them individually. Los Angeles' court system, as the largest, will be the most heavily affected.

Edmon said the drastic actions are the result of a state mandate to reduce annual spending by $30 million. She noted that earlier reductions already saved $70 million, but more cuts in state support for trial courts are scheduled for the next fiscal year.

Friday's action calls for laying off 157 people, while hundreds more will be given lower-level positions, reduced to part-time work or transferred to new jobs because their old ones have been eliminated.

Edmon and Assistant Presiding Judge David Wesley warned this is not the end of the crisis, noting that the state budget is not yet complete.

"There will be more cuts next year and their impacts will be severe," Wesley said.

The current plan eliminates the county's innovative juvenile traffic courts, which will result in the closure of 11 courtrooms. Court reporters will no longer be available for civil trials and 110 management, clerical and administrative positions outside courtrooms are being cut. These are likely to mean longer lines at windows where people go to pay traffic tickets or file civil lawsuits and seek restraining orders.

Although there are 56 courtrooms affected countywide, the biggest brunt of the impact will be felt in Los Angeles with its huge population.

"People make the courts run," said AFSCME President Karen Norwood. "Without enough people to do the work, justice stops."

The executive officer and clerk of the court, John A. Clarke, suggested the court is being swept up in "catastrophic changes" at the state level.

"The commitment of our judicial officers and staff to preserve access to justice is unwavering," he said. "But our ability to follow through on that commitment may soon be exhausted."