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No People, No Justice
Judge Curtis Karnow says draconian budget cuts will paralyze the Superior Court.

By Curtis Karnow

It was an odd juxtaposition of news stories on the radio.

NPR reported Russia is trying to get foreign investment, but people are wary: companies don't know if contracts will be enforced, or if the government will impose criminal charges without foundation, or just fairly enforce its laws.  They're not sure there is a Russian justice system.

The same day, another story detailed Sacramento's devastating budget cuts to California courts.

These cuts follow reductions inflicted in past years.  My court, the San Francisco Superior Court, has already reduced staff by about 18 percent through attrition, which puts us on the equivalent of life support.

The new budget will have even more profound consequences.  It will leave us with half the personnel we had two years ago.  Right now, my court is preparing layoff notices to 41 percent of our staff and closing 25 courtrooms.  Civil trials will suffer the most, indeed there may be no courtrooms available for any civil cases.  Every other service to the public will diminish.  As it is, we can't keep up with filings, and usually can't have hearings on Fridays. If justice delayed is justice denied, we are in for very tough times: people and companies simply will not get relief in a timely way.

Nowhere are courts more vital than in the U.S.  Judges -- and their staff -- are asked to step in when drug treatments fail, when companies use misleading ads, people breach contracts, families explode, competitors steal trade secrets, neighborhoods are commanded by gangs, citizens endure arbitrary regulations and landlords and tenants can't resolve their disputes.  It's a long list, but in the face of partisan politics, money, raw power and sometimes corruption, the courts provide the only place for fairness and law.

In hard times, when government reduces services, when companies and people make decisions with profound economic consequences for others, then we need our courts more than ever.  And without people, we have no justice system.

It is not good enough to have good laws on the books.  Russia has those, too.

With a Perspective, I'm Curtis Karnow.

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