Landmark Law Centralizing Court Finances Judged in Light of Crisis

     SACRAMENTO (CN) - A committee of judges and state administrators met Tuesday to evaluate the balance between central state control and local control of California's courts, in the long wake of 15-year-old landmark legislation centralizing court funding.
     The committee was formed by Governor Jerry Brown and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and met for the first time on election day. Aside from California's crippling budget crisis, their charge is further complicated by the unique financial circumstances and caseloads of each of the state's 58 trial courts, as well as the need to respect the autonomy of the local trial courts over their finances, a point stressed by judges on the committee.
     By the end of the meeting, about the only thing the group knew for certain was that the judiciary cannot expect to get any more money out of Sacramento this year, a fact emphasized by Director of Finance Ada Matosantos.
     "We're not looking to have a discussion about does the pie need to be bigger," she said, adding that the courts should also not expect to be able to keep their reserve funds, which the governor plans to sweep into a statewide pot. "We do not need to re-litigate decisions made by the legislature and governor related to the reserves," she said.
     The 1997 bill established a system of statewide funding for the trial courts, which had previously been run by the county. The ultimate goal has been to stabilize and equalize funding for the courts and improve access to the court system. Cantil-Sakauye and Governor Brown formed the Trial Court Funding Workgroup last month to address funding disparities and perceived inefficiencies in trial court operations.
     "We have a tremendous and unique opportunity to assess ourselves to see if we meet the goals of public access," Cantil-Sakauye said at the opening of the meeting. "All of us are at the beginning of a paradigm shift in how we view public funding and its use. And the judicial branch with its public trust has a responsibility to deliver this in the most fundamental, honest, wisest way."
     "I must confess that I never thought I would have to return to this subject," said former Assemblyman and committee co-chair Phillip Isenberg, for whom the Trial Court Funding Act is named. "It's probably fair to say 30 to 40 years from now another group of people looking very much like us will be examining the question of the administration of justice and how it can be continued and improved in California."
     Isenberg said a recentreview of the Administrative Office of the Courts by a group of 11 judges earlier this year could be a helpful guide for the committee.
     "On the AOC and its relationship to local control-- what's the name of the report that battered around the AOC? The Strategic Evaluation Committee. I suspect that parts of that evaluation are directly on point on some of the issues that are going to come up. It would be useful as we walk through our process if the staff points out to us on matters raised that the SEC said this and such. It might be useful."
     Matosantos said the impetus for the review sprung from the Governor's May revised budget, and that while the judiciary has made strides in its transition toward a unified statewide system, "It seemed to us there were some things that were not consistent with a state funded judiciary."
     She said individual trial court reserves were "not particularly consistent with a state funded program."
     Later, Matosantos acknowledged each court's authority to manage its finances, but said the committee should be looking at making sure the courts are making the best use of state allocated funds.
     "Are there things that can be done in terms of efficiency that will allow us to continue to provide the core functions of the judiciary? It is that very tension between local control and local decision making with state funding. When we think about balancing a budget, there are more bills than there is money, and there's the act of understanding what is driving a particular bill and how can we make it smaller so we can pay more of them," she said.
     Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County was the strongest voice at the table supporting local court autonomy.
     "There's language in the bill for the need for strong and independent local court financial management and the need for flexibility in management of court financial affairs. We need to be aware of that. The presiding judges and the court executive officers have a really simple perspective, and that's how do we pay the bills? So that's what we have to be aware of as well."
     Later, he said, "Ultimately we can't micromanage this and is up to each court's presiding judge to determine how to use and allocate the resources depending on what's happening. We have to respectful of the independence of each local court and have to be cognizant of the fact that every single judge is an elected official, answerable to the people in their county."
     Committee co-chair Justice Harry Hull noted the delicate balance between a statewide funding system and a local court's right to manage its own affairs.
     "There's a constant tension in all things related to administration," he said. "At what point are you tipping the balance in taking away the discretion of the individual county trial court in making decisions on how best to serve their communities? It goes beyond funding. When the statewide rules get to the point where they are handcuffing a small county, a medium sized county, and a large county's needs to serve its constituents, then the balance has gone to far."
     The committee faces the added difficultly of assessing the needs of the diverse courts, which range from the litigation giant Los Angeles, the largest court in the nation, to small courts in rural California. While some courts like San Joaquin county deal with multi-defendant gang trials, others like San Francisco and Los Angeles have a substantial caseload of complex commercial and product litigation.
     "It's not apples to apples. We're really going to have to dig deep down," said Judge Mary Ann O'Malley of Contra Costa County.
     The committee tentatively decided to look at two or three courts that appear to be the same in terms of size and caseload and compare their business practices, but there was some uncertainty as to what that would entail.
     "We don't control the spigot of cases," Rosenberg said. "In some courts 98-99 percent of cases are resolved before trial. But if you have a district attorney and a defense council who don't resolve cases, the system is different and the same number of cases are not processed. These are the kinds of nuances that affect the raw numbers."     
     Hull suggested the committee "compare two courts or three, look at the generalities and the nuances, then begin to winnow out what can be addressed so this work group can recommend efficiencies in the system."
     The committee expects to meet five times before April 2013, when a report is due to the Judicial Council and the Governor. The committee's next meeting is set for Dec. 11.