California Courts Given Reprieve in Budget

     (CN) - California's trial court operations got some relief Thursday from Gov. Jerry Brown's budget proposal where $200 million scheduled to be taken from local reserve funds would be offset by the same amount taken from courthouse construction funds.
     Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she was "relieved" that Brown's budget announcement Thursday morning didn't include any further cuts, but said the budget also doesn't fix the judiciary's ongoing funding crisis.
     "This budget doesn't answer our problems and our challenges," Cantil-Sakauye told reporters in a conference call Thursday. "We are relieved that the Governor doesn't include any additional reductions to operations, but nothing about this budget fixes or ameliorates anything about closures in Fresno of the courts, San Bernardino closures and courts still on reduced hours."
     "This is a flat budget, but it doesn't stop our advocacy for the needs of the branch," the chief justice said. "We have a continuing critical problem."
     Gov. Brown stuck to education and health care at a press conference unveiling the proposed package. While the chief justice said she "took no cue or offense" from his leaving out any discussion of the courts, she and Administrative Office of the Courts director Judge Steven Jahr, as well as judiciary lobbyists, are primed to immediately start pushing for some restoration of funding. Four years of consecutive cuts have left the judiciary with a $653 million funding hole, $544 million coming from last year's budget.
     "We have had numerous discussions among ourselves and are willing to move quickly," Cantil-Sakuye said, though she could not give a specific dollar amount they'll be asking for. "We're looking for a dollar amount that's fair and allows us to continue to provide robust service to the public. We're still putting finishing touches on that but it will be transparent."
     Without a funding boost, planned court closures based on cuts from last year's budget will go forward up and down the state.
     "Nothing changes the fact that Los Angeles, if nothing changes between now and June, is still going to have to institute the measures they've taken of closing courts and giving two judges the responsibility of 15,000 civil cases," Cantil-Sakuye said.
     But nothing is definite until the governor's revised budget is released in May. "This is January, not June, and we are optimistic about May," she said.
     In addition to a $200 million transfer from the construction program, the governor's budget mandates that the judiciary take about $35 million from its construction fund to make the first of many annual payments owed to a developer on a new courthouse in Long Beach. The judiciary contends that the Legislature had always promised to find money for the over $400 million project in the General Fund, and the chief justice said they will "absolutely" be advocating for Legislature to make good on this.
     Judicial branch leaders claim to have been blindsided last month by news that they would have to pay for the Long Beach courthouse out of the construction fund. Now with another $200 million hit to the program, it is likely that some of the 23 other planned courthouse projects will have to be put on hold.
     "The one time $200 million and Long Beach puts an enormous strain on the program for replacing court facilities, many of which are well past their due dates. We have a great deal of ground to make up," AOC Director Steven Jahr said.
     The governor is also moving forward with plans to sweep all 58 trial court reserve funds over one percent and establish a statewide emergency reserve. The $200 million transfer from the construction program is intended to relieve pressure on the courts to spend down their fund balances this year. While the courts thought they had two years to accomplish this, in December they were caught off guard by an announcement from the Department of Finance that it intended the plan to proceed within one year.
     "The law that requires those fund balances to be spent down to one percent must be changed. That has got to be tackled and the budget here doesn't provide a proposed resolution," said Jahr, noting that in light of budget cuts in the past four years, courts have been using their fund balances to meet payroll and financial obligations imposed by the federal government for which they sometimes wait months to be reimbursed.
     Responding to the governor's declaration that he intends to exercise his power to say no to critical needs throughout the state, the chief justice said she will work to change his attitude toward funding the courts. "I'm a realist but I'm an optimist as well," Cantil-Sakuye said. "It may be the administration's view but we hope to change that. This isn't living within our means; we are not even within our means in terms of providing justice to the public."