Work Group Evaluates Law That Centralized Funding of CA Courts

     SACRAMENTO (CN) - At a meeting to evaluate landmark legislation that revolutionized court funding in California 15 years ago, legislators and judges found that money remains a point of conflict between trial courts and the central court bureaucracy.
     "The issues after trial court funding remain today -- which is the constant tension between a standard of statewide administration and local preference to be given money and left alone," said said former Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg.
     Isenberg is co-chair of a committee on court funding set up last month by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Governor Jerry Brown.
     The Trial Court Funding Workgroup, as the committee is called, has a little over three months before it must report to the Judicial Council and the governor on the judiciary's progress in meeting the goals of the 1997 Trial Court Funding Act that set up a system of statewide funding for the trial courts.
     The legislation's langauge keeping local control over trial court finances and retaining a decentralized system of court management is often pointed to by judges who have criticized the Administrative Office of the Courts for trying to direct court policy and control local court management.
     At the meeting Wednesday, Isenberg asked the committee whether provisions on local court autonomy were being followed, specifically a section urging the Judicial Council to create a Trial Courts Bill of Financial Management Rights.
     "Some would argue that it's never been achieved," said committee member David Rosenberg, presiding judge of Yolo County.
     "I assume there isn't a formal document called the Bill of Rights," Isenberg said.
     "The actual directive in the act pertaining to that subject to ensure that level of autonomy was indeed addressed," answered Steven Jahr, a former judge and now the director of the administrative office. Jahr had worked on a task force after the 1997 bill's passage that was responsible for easing the judiciary onto central state funding.
     "The directory of provisions did not contain the words trial court bill of rights," Jahr conceded. "I'd submit if one were to go with the original rules of courts, one would find we did promulgate those."
     Isenberg said the issue needs a renewed focus.
     "Flag that as an issue because we know critics of the AOC have flagged that as a point," Isenberg said, suggesting that the committee may return to the contentious topic in future meetings.
     While a financial bill of rights for the courts may still be in dispute, Rosenberg noted that the judiciary has made some progress in giving courts the authority to manage themselves.
     "There's a constant tension here, but I think many of these elements of a decentralized system have been achieved," he said. "The primary achievement of decentralization and and local autonomy was the right and ability of each trial court to select is own presiding judge and assistant presiding judge and select its own court executive. Those are important achievements and functions to maintain independence of the trial courts."
     "And they have all right to run their courts as they see fit," added Judge Mary Ann O'Malley of Contra Costa County.
     The committee directed the AOC to chart the judiciary's progress on providing better access to courts and ensuring that courts have adopted uniform standards of conducting business. AOC officials will also try to meet with Department of Finance representatives before January to determine what directives from the Trial Court Funding Act remain unmet.