State

Monthly furloughs mean longer lines and 'legal triage' at Stanislaus County courthouse

Nearly two years into her divorce proceedings, Lori Mattingly hit a wall. Or rather, the locked doors of the Stanislaus County Superior Courthouse.

Mattingly, 50, showed up to file paperwork the same day court workers took their first state-imposed furlough day — one in a series that will last through at least July.

The halls of justice close the third Wednesday of each month, affecting all state courts in an effort to shrink a $361 million courts budget deficit.

For 270 Modesto clerks, court reporters and other workers, the extra days off mean a 5 percent reduction in salary.

Since being locked out that September day, Mattingly has noticed the courthouse has been busier, with longer lines and wait times.

"You get in a routine, going there so many times," Mattingly said. "It was very frustrating. Now, it's busier and more of a hassle."

Family court director Sandy Lucas knows the public isn't happy about the closures. She deals with highly emotional issues, such as disputes over child custody and people seeking restraining orders.

"They're saying, 'In America, the courthouses are supposed to be open Monday through Friday'," Lucas said. "Most of the people in Modesto don't come to the courthouse, but those that do, when they want to be here, they want to be here."

Some attorneys say the furlough days have a big impact on their case loads and how much time they can spend defending their clients.

"It's legal triage," said Peter Stavrianoudakis, president of the Stanislaus County Criminal Bar Association and a deputy public defender.

"Police officers aren't taking a furlough day and arresting ... less people (that week)," he said. "The small amount of time we spend assisting and advising our clients is now dramatically reduced. Those clients get less service than the other weeks because we simply have less time to spend with each person."

Prosecutors are also seeing a backlog. Deputy District Attorney Annette Rees said it's taking an extra month or two to get criminal defendants to trial.

"It hasn't seemed to have a significant effect on delaying cases in the short term, but setting a felony case for trial does seem to be further out than before," Rees said. "I am having to set cases in April and May already."

Court bailiffs know they must beef up security in the days following a furlough.

After last week's furlough day, court traffic increased from an average of 1,200 people to nearly 1,700.

"It's got to go somewhere," said Sgt. Glenn Cadwell.

Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at mbalassone@modbee.com or 578-2337.

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