Chief Justice Says California Courts Need Another Billion

     (CN) - California's courts need another $1.2 billion over the next three years and at least $266 million more this year just to stay open, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told reporters in unveiling a long term funding strategy for the judiciary today at the Capitol.
     Flanked by lawmakers, judges and local business owners on the steps of the Supreme Court of California in Sacramento, Cantil-Sakauye said a recent increase of $105 million for the judiciary in Governor Jerry Brown's proposed budget will not go far enough to mitigate five years of cuts and predicted a grim fiscal future for the courts.
     "I am grateful and appreciative of the governor's budget for the judicial branch. But in all candor, meaningful justice requires more," Cantil-Sakauye said. "Today, a critical situation will become a desperate one. In 14-15 the judicial branch runs out of mitigation, runs out of any attempt and ability to backfill because our funds have been used up."
     President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said, "Sometimes budgets tend to be numbers on a piece of paper. When it comes to the courts, budgets are more than a piece of paper the people of California need its courts system at their time of greatest vulnerability."
     Steinberg said he was breaking his own rule in supporting the chief justice publicly, as he generally avoids press conferences about the budget during budget season. "I made an exception to my own general rule because of the absolute importance of access to justice for all Californians."
     Cantil-Sakauye's three-year blueprint calls for $612 million this year to pay for more judges, update court technology and mitigate the affect of Brown's sweep of the trial courts' reserve funds.
     But the blueprint also outlined what the judiciary would need just to maintain services at the current level, which it called "treading water."
     That figure is $266 million, and includes 5.2 million to eliminate furloughs for employees of the Supreme Court, appellate courts and Administrative Office of the Courts, and $35.5 million for a 2 percent cost of living adjustment for court and judicial branch employees, the majority going to trial court employees.
     Also included in the $266 million figure is $197.3 million to offset what courts would be spending from reserve funds on operating costs, and $67.1 million for employee health benefits and retirement costs.
     Representing the trial courts in the audience at the press conference were Presiding Judge Robert Hight, Assistant Judge Kevin Culhane and Judge James Mize of Sacramento.
     On the legislative side were Steinberg, Senator Noreen Evans, Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski, Assemblymember Luis Alejo and Assemblymember Roger Dickinson.
     Wieckowski told reporters that he intends to fight the governor's plan to all but eliminate individual trial court reserve funds, rainy day money for budget shortfalls and other crises. "I am extremely concerned with the insistence on demanding that a one percent reserve for the court system be kept, and I thought we had a deal last year to go up to 12 percent," he said. "As a member of the Assembly, I'll continue to fight for that."