SM COURTHOUSE — Justice in Santa Monica may be harder to come by if a tax measure proposed for the November ballot doesn’t pass.

That’s the word from Judge Joseph Biderman, the supervising judge for the West District of Los Angeles County’s Superior Court system, which has had to swallow millions of dollars in cuts over the past several years in response to the worsening state budget.

Those reductions have resulted in fewer courtrooms and less court staff, which puts more cases on judges’ dockets and fewer physical locations to hear them, resulting in long wait times on even simple cases.

The 2012-13 budget released by Gov. Jerry Brown last week promises that courts will get the same funding as in 2011-12, but includes a $125 million cut that will be triggered if the tax measure doesn’t pass in November.

If that happens, it will have a “horrible impact” on access to justice, said Ronald Overholt, the interim administrative director for California courts.

“Most of us don’t go into court every day, but when we do need to go to court, it’s pretty important,” Overholt said. “Being able to access the courts is important.”

With or without the trigger, the Los Angeles County court system already needs to slim down its spending.

The Los Angeles Superior Court system has a $85.4 million shortfall in the current fiscal year. That amount is expected to jump $160.9 million next year if everything stays the same, said Mary Hearn, acting public information officer for the courts.

The courts have shed 800 employees over the past several years, mostly through attrition and other voluntary measures, and three courtrooms in Santa Monica have already closed.

Biderman, who hears cases in the Santa Monica Courthouse, said that while final decisions on where the cuts could come and how much will be necessary haven’t been made, “everything is on the table.”

That includes closing more courtrooms, reducing staff and even shutting down the branch in Malibu, which sees less traffic than other areas.

“We’re looking at as few as two and as many as five courtrooms closed,” Biderman said. “That could affect both civil and criminal courtrooms.”

Shutting down additional courtrooms means redistributing cases through the system and increasing already strained workloads, forcing judges to do more with less.

That means more lines, waits to contest tickets and time spent in the civil court waiting for loaded dockets to clear.

Last year, 500,000 people went through the Santa Monica Courthouse alone, Biderman said, and 350,000 cases were filed in the West District alone.

Shoving that load onto judges with fewer courtrooms and support staff will gum up the system, he said.

Paul Kiesel, an attorney at Kiesel, Boucher & Larson LLP in Beverly Hills, sees the impacts of budget cuts every day.

Kiesel is a co-chair of the Open Courts Coalition, a group of attorneys and other professionals involved with the courts that is leading the plea for the legislature to restore funding to the ailing judicial system.

Two years ago, he would wait three weeks to get a hearing for his civil cases. Today, the delay is between four and six months.

“Deadlines have an impact on people,” Kiesel said. “Businesses can be impacted because they want resolutions to their disputes. Now that takes a matter of years. That’s a problem when you’re trying to run your operation today.”

Restraining orders and child custody battles also take longer, resulting in potentially unsafe situations and disruptions in the lives of children and families.

“My goal is before the system collapses, to set things straight again,” Kiesel said.

Open Courts Coalition will ask for the legislature to restore $350 million of funding that was taken out in the 2011-12 year at a Jan. 18 protest in Downtown Los Angeles with former Gov. Gray Davis and Eric Webber, president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association.

Meanwhile, the West District will wait to hear what it will lose next.

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