Council Backs Off Deficit Budget, Name Change Brings Controversy

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Senator Noreen Evans on Tuesday urged the Judicial Council not to waste good will between the courts, the Legislature and the governor's office by assuming legislators will make up for a projected shortfall of $22.7 million in court fee revenue. On a second matter, a motion to abandon the name of the judiciary's administrative agency passed, but not without controversy.
     "The Judicial Council cannot pick a fight with the Department of Finance. It is not winnable. They hold all the cards, obviously, and we need to work cooperatively with them," Evans told the council.
     Evans was referring to a recommendation from the council's Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee that the council avoid addressing the shortfall now and instead send a request for the additional funds to the governor's Department of Finance.
     "The consensus of the committee was that by doing that we would solve a problem that's not ours and should be solved by the DOF and they should not be let off the hook for that," said Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento, who chairs the budget committee.
     The projected 2014-2015 revenue for court fees such as civil case filing fees and criminal fines was lowered by the judiciary staff and the governor's financial staff by about $70 million earlier this year.
     In April, the council asked the governor's finance department to backfill that amount in the 2014-2015 budget for the courts. In his May revise, the governor gave $30.9 million.
     The judicial council's budget committee then said another $22.7 million was needed for the trial court trust fund which funds trial court operations in the 58 counties of California.
     Earl told the council, "Over the past several years, the state significantly reduced support for trial court operations and relied in part on revenue from court user fees, and the risk is if that user fees decline, so do the revenue they generate."
     "This was the advisory committee's opinion that the stability of state trial court funding should be protected despite changes in user fee revenues," Earl added, "This shortfall, we believe, is rightfully a problem the state needs to take responsibility for. "
     Earl noted that the Department of Finance had said it would be willing to backfill fee revenue shortages. "It's not clear why they couldn't commit to back fill this year," Earl said.
     Evans, a Democrat from Santa Rosa and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged caution in approaching the shortfall.
     She warned that it was not fiscally prudent to operate at a deficit and that the goodwill the judiciary had built in Sacramento could be jeopardized by allocating funds that the courts are not assured of getting.
     "Don't upset the apple cart at this point. There has been a lot of goodwill built up at this point and we need to keep that moving forward," said Evans. "I would suggest that conversations be held with legislative leaders."
     The judges around the council meeting table seemed to agree.
     "The sentiments from the DOF is they want us to act prudently. Fiscally responsible. They consider deficit spending to be contrary to that," Judge Brian McCabe from Merced said. "I'm slow but I'm not that slow. This is going to create political fallout and will undo what we've worked very hard to do over the last several years which is build a relationship with our sister branches."
     Justice Marvin Baxter said, "Sometimes a recommendation with the best of intentions can have unintended consequences. I suspect that in this case it would be true. We will be telegraphing to the trial courts that this money is available. Then what do we do? I do think that we proceed carefully. I don't think we should provoke our sister branches of government."
     The council rejected the budget committee's recommendation on a voice vote.
     Judge Mary Ann O'Malley of Contra Costa County was the only judge who stood in opposition, voting against the majority.
     "I feel for those presiding judges and court executive officers they've been cut, and cut and cut. I don't think anybody wants to pick a fight with anybody I just think they don't want to be hit again. And so it is just a matter of hoping that a wrong can be righted for the right reasons," O'Malley said.
     Also during its Tuesday meeting, the council approved an amendment to the California Rules of Court to retire the name "Administrative Office of the Courts," and rename the agency "Judicial Council staff."
     A month earlier, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she had decided to the change the agency's name and directed the heads of the council's five internal committees to draft the rule change.
     At Tuesday's meeting, the head of one of those committees made his pitch for the change, reflecting a line of argument adopted by the agency's former director Steven Jahr who said, "It at once changes everything and changes nothing."
     "For years there has been widespread confusion among those who aren't familiar with the judicial branch that the staff of the council was a separate entity from the council and in some way independent of the council," said Justice Harry Hull, who chairs the internal committee on policy and legislation. "This confusion in my view at least was sometimes exploited by those who didn't have the best interests of the judicial branch or the public in mind."
     That argument was contradicted a day earlier.
     "This is not the position the AOC and the council have taken in court," said a statement from the Alliance of California judges, a reform group that counts 500 California judges as members.
     Referring to the AOC's opposition to a sex discrimination suit by a former employee, the Alliance noted, "An attorney for the council argued back in 2010 that plaintiff was employed by the AOC and not the council."
      In that litigation, an affidavit filed by the AOC's human resources director said, "Plaintiff was employed by the AOC, not the Judicial Council. The Judicial Council does not have any employees."
     Referring to the argument that the name change "changes nothing at all," the Alliance statement said, "It certainly changes one thing, it changes the position that the AOC and the Council have taken in documents that they filed under oath."
     On Tuesday, the motion to adopt a court rule abandoning the name Administrative Office of the Courts passed on a unanimous vote.