New Division of Funds Among California's 58 Trial Courts

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Judicial Council on Friday voted for a new method of allocating money among the local trial courts in California, the first time the funding formula has been changed in almost two decades.
     The old funding model was frozen along historic lines, based on ratios established in 1994 that carried forward into 1997 legislation that centralized court funding and rule-making and started a big expansion of the central administrative office. After Friday's vote, trial court funding will slowly begin taking into account the volume of cases handled by individual trial courts along with other factors.
     But the slow pace with which the new funding formula will be put in place brought a strong challenge from the presiding judge of seriously underfunded San Joaquin County.
     "For over 15 years the inequity of that system has been perpetuated," said Presiding Judge David Warner in a public comment period at the start of the discussion. "It has rewarded some courts from a monetary standpoint and punished others."
     Presenting the new funding model to the council, Sacramento Presiding Judge Laurie Earl said the reform was necessary to convince the governor and legislators that the judges are serious about getting their financial house in order.
     "We have to do something in fiscal year 2013-14, and this is a precursor to seeing any further reinvestment in the trial courts to make sure the other branches of government and the public understand our budget development process and understand where the money that the branch gets is going," Earl said.
     Presiding Judge Brian Walsh of Santa Clara County, a member of the sub-committee, put it more bluntly.
     "The legislature said to us unless you come up with a new allocation method, we will not give you new funding," Walsh said.
     All of the 17 voting members present at the meeting voted in favor of the new model, including the Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
     The new plan will be implemented in small increments over five years. In the budget for 2017-2018, half of a court's funding will be based on the new model, and the other half will come from the historic model. Earl added that the most intense debate among the members of her funding methodology subcommittee centered on the transition schedule.
     "This was by far the most boisterous discussion- about how and when we should implement the model," Earl told the council.
     While judges and administrators argue that all 58 trial courts in California are underfunded, some are considered to be severely so. Under the new model, courts used to getting a traditionally higher share of the overall budget will inevitably have to give up some of that money to those courts in worse fiscal shape.
     The five-year schedule is intended to give the courts with better funding a comfortable amount of time to trim their operations. But in a public comment period before the vote, Presiding Judge David Warner from San Joaquin urged the council to move ahead quickly, saying swift implementation is "key to the survival of the San Joaquin Superior Court."
     "For over 15 years the inequity of that system has been perpetuated," said Warner. "It has rewarded some courts from a monetary standpoint and punished others."
     San Joaquin is arguably the most underfunded court in the state, and Warner said he was "taken aback" by an argument he'd heard that courts like his wouldn't know what to do with the extra money. He said, "We are under-resourced, not stupid."
     "We've been waiting 15 years for a fair process," Warner added. "And now that we can see it and its within our grasp, if we phase in the system, it really won't provide much benefit. We are told that the phase-in is necessary to allow the well-funded courts to adjust. There are other options. Our request is to fully implement the methodology to allow the courts taking cuts to apply for supplemental funding if they faced a deficit, as we were told to do. If that is acceptable for under-resourced courts why is it not acceptable for the better resourced courts?"
     Earl said the committee considered abandoning historical funding and moving over to a workload based model immediately, but decided it would do too much damage to courts like Orange County, which would lose $41 million a year, or Alameda County, which would lose $26 million.
     "If we were to implement this new model 100 percent on July 1 we would simply flip the the position of some courts who are underfunded with those who are woefully underfunded," Earl said. "We're robbing Peter to pay Paul. The five-year implementation schedule will allow us to glide into parity."
     Fundamentally, the complex methodology is a two-part system, the first being a budget process that uses a court's case filings to estimate its workload, and converts that data into its full-time equivalent staff need. That number is converted into dollars, and added to the court's operating expenses and other unique factors.
     That number is then added to the cost of the court's special expenditures on programs like dependency counsel or security. After adding in some additional costs, one arrives at its total budget need.
     The second part is the allocation process, based on the court's percentage share of workload-driven need. The first year, only ten percent of each court's allocation will be based on the new method, and 90 percent will be based on the historic model.
     Earl noted that the method still needs tweaking.
     For instance, 14 small, two-judge courts would receive a decrease in funding the first year.
     "We knew that wasn't right," she said. "The amount of money that is involved is about $450,000 so we decided to keep them out of the model the first year," Earl said. Adjustments for cost of labor across the 58 counties will also have to be made.
     Presiding Judge Tom Borris of Orange County, a member of Earl's subcommittee, said although his court would lose some money, it still endorses the new model.
     "We have to lower the draw bridges, fill in the moats we've put around our counties and start thinking of moving on from something we have done since 1994," said Borris. "Orange county believes in this formula. There is a lot that needs to be worked on and tweaked. But it is sound, it is fundamental, it is transparent."
     In addition to Orange, Santa Clara, Alameda, Contra Costa, Fresno, Mendocino, San Diego, San Francisco and San Mateo will lose some funding.
     "Their need, relatively speaking, is not as great as other courts," said Earl.
     Courts like Riverside, Kings County, San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin County and Imperial County will benefit.
     "What we bring before you is not perfect, but it's better than good," said Walsh from Santa Clara. "In fact it is the best."
     He said the plan should not be considered a "Robin Hood" method under which funds are taken from wealthy courts and given to the poor.
     "We can assure you there are no rich courts," Walsh continued. "I think of it not as Robin Hood but a black and white movie from the Great Depression. Two people are out of luck and one slightly better off than the other reaches into his pocket and gives a quarter to the guy who is really hurting."
     "So it's not Robin Hood," Walsh concluded, "It's, 'He's not heavy, he's my brother,'" drawing laughter from around the council table.