Trial Court Budget Committee Meets in Open

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A $60 million budget boost to trial court budgets will keep courtrooms open and running, but it will do little to reverse the court closures and layoffs that have already taken place. Such was the consensus Monday from the 30 judges and court officials who make up the budget committee for California's far flung trial courts.
     "I don't see this as getting $60 million but as getting $60 million less of a cut," said Presiding Judge Barry Goode of Contra Costa County. "Our preliminary analysis is that this is a very small amount of money."
     The Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee is led by Sacramento Presiding Judge Laurie Earl who opened the meeting to press and public.
     Budget committee meetings traditionally have not been open. Most committee decisions are not known until they are presented to the full Judicial Council.
     This year, the state Legislature tried to mandate that the council open all its advisory committee and subcommittee meetings. But Governor Jerry Brown axed that provision when he signed this year's budget bill.
     Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye lobbied against the provision to require open meetings, but said later that she planned to make more meetings public next year.
     Any advisory committee meeting can currently be opened at the discretion of its chair. Earl said next month's meeting will also be open and will include an opportunity for public comment.
      The courts won't see a cent of the $60 million boost until September 1, when a report is due to the Legislature detailing individual court plans to maintain or increase public access. At its meeting Tuesday the committee discussed the message to convey: that while the courts are grateful for the increase, it's merely a drop in the bucket toward a fully-funded judiciary.
     Some judges suggested the report should put an emphasis on the need for more.
     "I would urge that the template capture the notion that perhaps we would not have to cut something additional as opposed to restoring services. It's not clear to me that the Legislature understands that this will not enable us to restore services on a massive scale but to stave off further cuts," Goode said.
     "If you can restore some services, it would clearly be on a limited basis until you know what will happen next year," Presiding Judge Marsha Slough of San Bernardino added.
     "All that money is going to do is reduce our furlough days from 27 to 21," Presiding Judge Thomas DeSantos of Kings County said. In an interview afterward, he added, "We understand that everyone is hurting, but we're balancing the budget on the backs of our employees."
     Others pushed for greater emphasis on the positive.
     "Report that you are increasing services because you are reducing furlough days," Earl said. "Report it in the positive so they can see we're able to eliminate certain furloughs which will enable us to get more work done, but it may be on a limited basis if we can't get more money next year. This is an advocacy opportunity to show how the $60 million will impact us but it's not quite enough -- that we need more to be able to fully restore access to justice."