Legislative Analyst Says More Money Should Go To CA Courts

     (CN) - In a report released late Friday, the California Legislative Analyst's Office is pushing for the Legislature to exercise more control over the judiciary's finances by recommending that it reject Governor Jerry Brown's plan to give the Judicial Council the authority to allocate this year's budget cuts. The Legislative Analyst also recommended that any money the council is not going to spend on a terminated statewide court IT project should go directly to keeping trial courts running.
      "Given the magnitude of the proposed budget reductions and the limited availability of special fund balances to offset the ongoing reductions, decisions about how the cuts are allocated would likely have significant impacts on public access to the courts, as well as court operations and projects. We recommend the Legislature establish its own funding priorities for the judicial branch rather than leaving such discretion entirely to the Judicial Council," the LAO report said.
     Anita Lee, who prepared the report, said the Legislature needs to have a say in how to deal with this year's massive $302 million cut to the branch. In the past when the Legislature has appropriated money to the judiciary, the council has decided how to allocate that money among the trial courts, supreme court, courts of appeal, and its administrative office. If the LAO's recommendation is adopted, lawmakers will play a greater role in how the money is allocated.
     "It's more that the Legislature should have voice in the process. So in that recommendation, it does say the Legislature is doing this in consultation with the branch. The Legislature would basically be providing funding priorities," Lee said. "The overarching role of the Legislature is to appropriate funds. On top of that there is the magnitude of the reduction that still needs to be addressed this year. $302 million is quite large."
     The bureaucracy at the top of the courts have been fighting for the council to keep its power over the budget. At a recent council meeting, lobbyist Curt Child with the Administrative Office of the Courts said he has been negotiating with lawmakers and the Governor for the council to retain its authority over administering the budget cuts.
     "I think what is crucial as an important component in our discussions that we're having is that in fact this body be given the discretion to make the determinations, how to best allocate the reductions," Child said.
     Child could not be reached for comment Friday.
     In an interview Friday, Judge David Lampe from Kern County Superior Court, director of the reform-minded Alliance of California Judges, rejected the argument that legislation intended to ensure courts are fully funded will strip the council of its constitutional power.
     "The Judicial Council has no constitutional authority over the budget or the trial courts. They're not our boss. They're given statutory authority by the Legislature. For anybody to say they have constitutional authority over the budget- it's absolutely wrong," Lampe said. He added that the LAO's findings are in line with AB 1208, a bill sponsored by the Alliance that if made law, will allocate all money meant for court operations directly to the courts.
     "That's basically what we're saying with AB 1208, that the Legislature should direct the money to trial courts and not give it to the Judicial Council," Lampe said.
     The bill, introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Los Angeles), passed in the Assembly in January and awaits assignment to a committee in the Senate.
     "The LAO wisely concludes that the Judicial Council should not be given authority to apportion budget cuts to the trial courts," said an Alliance statement issued Friday. "Instead that policy decision should be made by the legislature. That position is in line with AB1208, the Trial Court Rights Act, and recognizes that the Judicial Council has repeatedly failed in its mission to prioritize spending and preserve public dollars."
     At a judges conference last fall, Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), hinted that the Legislature would step in on budget matters if necessary. "If the Legislature sees mismanagement," she said, "that's another thing."
     The LAO's report also recommended that the $46 million the council planned to spend on its discontinued Court Case Management System this year be handed over to the courts. The council voted to pull the plug on the project last month, citing a lack of money, but many judges decried the system as a boondoggle and blasted by the State Auditor last year. The council spent over $500 million on CCMS over 9-year period, but the auditor said costs would likely reach $2 billion.
     The LAO further urged that a $16 million rebate from the system's developer Deloitte also go to the courts.
      "In the wake of the more than a half billion dollars wasted by the council on CCMS, any funds that were slated for that failed project must be redirected to the local courts," said the Alliance statement. "Budget language must be in place to ensure that the project is truly terminated and those dollars get to the trial courts immediately."
     Other recommendations included approval of $50 million in increased civil filing fees and cancellation or delay of courthouse construction projects. The LAO' s report said the roughly $1.6 billion budgeted for 12 new courthouses could go toward keeping existing courthouses open.
     The Alliance expressed reservations at that suggestion. "The LAO's recommendation that construction funds be redirected to the trial courts, unless construction is actually underway, bears serious consideration," their statement said. "While we acknowledge that some courts need new facilities because of significant security risks, the Alliance opposes the exorbitant costs associated with the construction program run by the Administrative Office of the Courts. We believe that the legislature should carefully scrutinize this program in light of other instances of mismanagement by the AOC. Building expensive new courthouses while other courts are closing cannot be justified."
     The Judicial Council was not immediately available for comment on the report. Appellate Justice Brad Hill, a member of the council's construction committee, said in a statement, "We are now in a significantly different economic climate. After years of budget cuts in the courts, we now need to look more carefully at whether we can build smaller court projects and still meet court needs, or how else we may be able to save money. We should take strong action to ensure that we are spending public money as prudently as possible."