After years of dealing with the chopping block, court systems throughout California would be spared additional cuts under Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

That's good, local court officials say, because the courts cannot afford any more chipping away at their budgets.

In November, Los Angeles Superior Court proposed a restructuring plan that calls for 10 of its courthouses to close this year. San Bernardino Superior Court has closed its Chino courthouse and will close the Barstow and Needles courthouses later this year.

"Despite the huge cuts already imposed, we have implemented significant operating efficiencies that have allowed us to keep intact our ability to provide access to justice," said David S.

A person walks into the Chino Superior Court on July 13.
A person walks into the Chino Superior Court on July 13. (Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/Staff Photographer)
Wesley, the presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court. "But we have run out of options."

Brown's budget proposal would secure about $3.1 billion in the 2013-14 budget for the state's court system, from its 58 trial courts to the California Supreme Court.

The budget, which was released Thursday, does propose draining $200 million from the judiciary by delaying courthouse construction projects.

About $1.2 billion has already been slashed from the judicial branch over the past few years.

Any more cuts would be devastating for local court systems, court officials said.

Under the restructuring plan introduced in November, Los Angeles County Superior Court services could decrease dramatically with 26 small-claims locations being reduced to six, 24 courts that hear collection cases going to two and personal injury locations declining from 12 to one.

"We're beyond trimming fat," said Mary Hearn, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Superior Court. "That happened a long time ago."

She likened the cuts so far to an old saying - "still using a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer.

Chino Superior Court.
Chino Superior Court. (File photo)
"

"July 1 is when we start using the sledgehammer," Hearn said of the date the county's anticipated court closures will go into affect.

Even with those cuts, a shortfall of $85 million remains for the Los Angeles Superior Court system.

Last year, Brown forced the judiciary to divert $400 million from trial court reserves to help cover a $544 million budget cut.

In his 2013-14 budget outline, Brown warned that by the 2014-15 fiscal year there will be no more reserves to tap and that trial courts must make "permanent changes" to stay within projected budget levels.

"We started the current fiscal year with $125 million," Hearn said.

"The plan is to spend down those resources to $10 million at the end of the fiscal year so all of the discretionary funds will be spent."

The $10 million that will be left is restricted by a new state law that says courts cannot have more than 1 percent of their state allocation for their reserves come July 2014.

Stephen Nash, San Bernardino County Superior Court's executive officer, said that system's reserves have plunged from $32.8 million to $8.2 million. By June 30, 2014, he expects the reserve fund to be close to $800,000.

"That cap is just too little," Nash said last year. "That would not be enough to get us through a month of payroll."

District Attorney Michael A. Ramos said the recent cutbacks, such as the court closures and reduced staffing, have forced him to reorganize his entire office.

"Years ago, education took a big cut, then state prisons and now the courts," Ramos said.

But Ramos said he is choosing to look at the positives.

"It's going to make us more efficient. We're going to have more lawyers in major offices. We will have to work on new resources," he said. "We will see justice."

Ramos said he takes the governor at his word when he says there will be no additional cuts.

"We have to make sure we have the courts and judges to continue what I believe is the best system in the world," Ramos said.


Reach Lori via email, call her at 909-483-9378, or find her on Twitter at @IEcourtsNow.