Desperate Courts Ask for Money But Only One Gets Bailout Funds

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Two of California's neediest trial courts petitioned the Judicial Council for emergency funds at its meeting Friday, but only one walked away with money.
     While both Kings County and San Joaquin county courts are in dire fiscal straits, with negative fund balances of $2.2 million and $1.7 million respectively, the council voted to keep only Kings afloat until the end of the fiscal year with $94,000.
     San Joaquin had initially asked for $2.2 million, or at the very least $442,000, the amount it had contributed to the judiciary's emergency reserve. Presiding Judge David Warner of San Joaquin County Superior Court pleaded vehemently for the funds, saying the court's understaffing issues have brought it to the brink of closing down its ability to handle a majority of the types of cases filed in the court.
     "We're no longer able to do all the case types. Beginning September 1st in our county, if you file a small claims action, it's literally stuck in a box. And I get letters and calls from people saying, are you kidding me? Is this a joke? Are you doing some grandstanding here? And I tell them I have to have staff to process these cases," Warner said.
     "And we stopped small claims. Here's the worst problem. That's not enough. Even where we're at right now, we're not getting the cases done. We're going to have to start to cut into other civil cases in order to balance that workload and the caseload that we have."
     Warner attributed the court's financial crisis the way the courts are funded, a method he said has historically left San Joaquin as the most underfunded court in the state.
     "I believe our county is a special situation brought about by historical, chronic, significant underfunding and a funding mechanism that this council controls, which has not been fixed, and that's led to the situation that we're in," Warner said, noting that if the court received only $442,000 of the $2.2 million it requested, it will definitely lay off another 22 staff and start closing more regional courthouses.
     "We've already closed Tracy completely, Lodi is down to one court. We'll close it up and that will leave us with Manteca as an outlying branch," he said. "At that point we will not only stop doing small claims, we will stop doing civil. There will be no civil cases in San Joaquin County. You can file it, we'll stick it in a box, and good luck with that. That's where it will sit. I have to have the staff to move those cases along."
     On the judiciary's need to overhaul its funding structure, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said a committee formed in conjunction with the governor's office will address the issue in the coming weeks.
     "I think this is a critical piece that is significant to the trial court funding work group and the discussions to be had about the range of problems that the courts are facing," said the chief justice. Three of the council's judges are on that committee.
     Judges on the council grilled Warner over what the court had been doing to cut costs since December 2011, when the council sent $2 million to the court -- a $1.08 million grant and a $916,000 loan. Warner replied that the court was currently working it way through a list of 59 recommendations that the a group of judges and court officials had given them, and is still holding $916,000.
     "The other 916,000 was to create a reserve, which at the time we were having reserves," he said. "Until the state changed that. And so it was done as a loan. So it is still there. But it's a loan that we pay back. So it sits there."
     The council members seemed to be in agreement that the generous payback period of five years meant that the court should be spending the $916,000 to meet its budgetary needs this year.
     "To sit on a loan of $900,000, what good is the loan if in fact it wasn't used other than to house it for five years to pay it back? And it's not a criticism. I know these are difficult times," said Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside.
     Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County suggested the court consider closing its regional branches.
     "I don't think we are in a position here at the Judicial Council to micromanage or give you suggestions or tell you how to run your court," said Rosenberg. "But I do want to say two things. There is a requirement in California that we have a superior court in each and every county. But there is no requirement that we have a superior court in each and every city.
     I know that my court, about a decade ago, when we were in economic good times, decided to close a number of courts in communities," he continued. "And brought all superior court functions back to the county seat. And sure, it's inconvenient in many ways for people to drive 10 miles or 20 miles. But it was a significant cost saving measure. So that's just the way it is in California today."
     He also acknowledged the structural problems in the judiciary's funding system, but said, "I don't think a court can constitutionally say, 'you know, we're just going to close small claims or we're just going to close down probate or we're going to close civil or traffic.' I don't think a court can do that. Will processing be a lot slower because of funding problems or staff problems? Yes, I'm sure it will be. But I think we are obligated to perform all the functions the law."
     "I couldn't agree more," Warner said.
     The council voted to defer a bailout to San Joaquin, directing the court to instead put the $916,000 loan to use and report its financial situation to the council at its next meeting in December.
     Rosenberg, Justice Douglas Miller, Judge David De Alba of Sacramento and Judge Stephen Baker of Shasta County voted against the motion.
     In an interview after the meeting, Miller said, "I was shocked like everyone else that they hadn't used the $916,000 but I believe they are underfunded."
     He added that the court had been "making great strides" to cut costs, but "More than likely, they'll be back here in December."
     The council also deferred action on whether to give each trial court a share of $25 million from the Trial Court Trust Fund and ask the Department of Finance and the legislature for the authority to distribute an additional $37 million from the fund. Justice Miller said he had met with state Finance Director Ana Matosantos, who had urged him to tell the council not to spend that money until January.
     "She stressed that she wasn't in any way indicating we didn't have the discretion on one of those funds to make that appropriation. But that she didn't feel that this was the appropriate time to do this," Miller said. "And she was recommending that we would hold that off until our January Judicial Council meeting, when she felt and her office felt based on their analysis that we would all have a better more complete picture as to what the actual revenues were and what the actual expenditures were."
     The council also decided to hold off on giving the courts revenues from a new $30 fee for civil court reporter services in the amount each court collected until January, assuming that by then the governor's trial court funding working group will have met and talked about how to allocate those funds.
     Miller said Matosantos told him "she felt that that was something that should be decided in conjunction with the new working group that will evaluate that in consistency with the trial court funding act on a statewide basis."
     "I don't want to win the battle and lose the war," said Assistant Presiding Judge Ira Kaufman from Plumas County. "With the Department of Finance, we're starting down a new road with them, with the working group. We're talking about two months really. For 60 days to go into the meeting with good faith means a lot more sense than thumbing our nose and say we're going to take $30."
     Judge Ellsworth was the only council member to vote against deferring the matter, saying it would cause problems for the courts.
     She alluded to former council member Judge David Wesley of Los Angeles, who was often the lone dissenting vote on the council. "I'm going to Dave-Wesley this and say that I think the delay could cause some problems," she said with a laugh.