Standoff Between Cal Judges and Local Sheriffs Over Court Security
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - California judges have met California sheriffs in a stand-off over court security, with a leading judge saying, "We're being used in a political game."
At the heart of the dispute is the question of who should ask the Legislature for the money to pay local sheriff departments for courthouse security. The issue brought heated comments during a meeting earlier this month where judges settled on proposed distributions within the trial court slice of the roughly $3.4 billion California court budget.
The trial courts are in agreement that funding for security should be on the list of priorities submitted to Gov. Jerry Brown's finance department, said committee chair Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento. But there is a dispute over who should make the request.
"It seems the nature of the disagreement is who should submit the budget change proposal, the Judicial Branch or the Deputy Sheriffs Association," Earl said.
There is the matter of responsiblity over how the money is spent, some judges argued. But there is a political calculus, as well.
Law enforcement requests for funds traditionally tend to receive a more favorable reception than those coming from the courts, noted other judges at the meeting.
In a statement read at the budget meeting, Sonoma County Superior Court head clerk José Octavio Guillén that summed up the sentiment among many courts that pressure for more money should come from the sheriffs, not the courts.
"The immediate and long-term solution should be via legislation," Guillén said. "The trials courts are being held hostage by sheriffs and the Legislature."
"The issue is who should properly ask for it considering the courts don't have any control over how it's spent," said Sonoma Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau said in an interview. "Why would the courts be asking the Legislature for money for another political entity? That's between the legislature and sheriffs. For us to go in and say the Sheriff needs more money, then why isn't he asking for it?"
His views are widely reflected among California's trial judges, based on a survey of budget priorities presented at the budget meeting.
The leading argument by the judges at the meeting was the courts' inability to monitor how the money is spent, after funding for court security was shifted to the counties through the Criminal Justice Realignment Act.
"It appears to be the case that there has not been built into this realignment any kind of audit procedures," Earl cautioned the budget committee. "Sheriffs are required to spend the money only on court security. The problem is there's no audit that goes with that. If the sheriffs tell you we spent it all, then they spent it all."
From Contra Costa, Presiding Judge Barry Goode added "The sheriff's department is unaudited, spending our money. It will only embarrass us if they're not spending the money the way they're supposed to," .
From San Bernardino, Presiding Judge Marsha Slough warned that failing to ask for adequate funding could backfire on the courts. "We're the ones being impacted by the issue, not them. It is our issue, and it will only compound year after year as costs go up," she said.
But Earl said the courts should avoid becoming entangled in budget proposal commitments that could last years.
"We're being used in a political game," said Earl. "The Sheriff is using us to try to get additional funding. They don't want to go get it themselves, because first of all I don't think they can justify their need or how they spent the money in the past, and so they're much happier pushing us to go do it for them."
"But they won't just expect us to do it this year," Earl added. "Because these costs are related to increased costs for health and retirement benefits, which will go up every year. So my concern is that perhaps we find ourselves facing this discussion again this year."
The committee decided to exclude trial court security from the list of budget priorities it is set to present to the full Judicial Council on Friday.
"If they need money, they'll make the request. These guys know how to get the money," Alameda Presiding Judge Don Clay said. "They're way more powerful than the courts are."