California Judges Grill Finance Director Over Governor's Emaciated Court Budget

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - At a meeting of the Judicial Council Thursday, judges grilled the governor's finance director over the emaciated budget for California's court system, with one judge asking whether the governor believed the funds adequate for the public service standards of a a first world democracy.
     The examination of of Michael Cohen, who directs the Gov. Jerry Brown's finance department, focused on the governor's recent $160 million bump for the courts' previously approved $3 billion budget for trial courts in the current fiscal year, with a 5% increase suggested for following year.
     The courts have survived a series of brutal year-on-year cuts that have reduced their overall court budget by roughly one third. They have continued to operate by closing courthouses and laying of hundreds of staff. The result has been that delays extend for getting cases to trial and various simple tasks that the courts are supposed to resolve stack up.
     The additional amounts recently proposed by Brown gave some financial relief but are widely considered inadequate to operate the courts in the long term in the nation's most populous state.
     At Thursday's council meeting, Judge Mary Ann O'Malley from Contra Costa asked Cohen, "With the permanent lower level of funding, do you believe that the governor believes that we're providing a level of access to sufficient to a first world democracy?"
     The finance director replied, "I think the government believes we can always become more efficient in providing all types of government services, and this two-year window is an opportunity for us to figure out how much efficiency is still there that doesn't threaten access to justice." But he added, "At some point, clearly you go too far."
     Cohen said he was well aware that the $160 million in additional funds is well below what "you feel is necessary to run the branch at the level you suggested."
     But, he added, the judges should "view that as a real win," when California is just emerging from several years of deficit budgets. He said very few state-funded programs have seen ongoing funding increases outside of areas where the governor's finance department has no control, like K-12 education and federal healthcare reform.
     The $160 million breaks down to $86.3 million for trial court operations, $42.8 for court employee benefit costs and $30.9 million to offset a shortfall in filing fee revenue.
     O'Malley questioned the $30.9 million figure.
     "Is there going to be a position in the future where if there's reduced fines and fees that the state as you mentioned is responsible for the trial court funding, that you would pay all of that and not just part of it? I think we were short $22.7 million this last time," she said.
     Cohen answered, "We recognized that your trial court funding is more at risk than it used to be given the higher percentage of your revenues coming from fees." He said there will always be some uncertainty in estimating fee revenues, but he tries to build the budget on the most realistic estimates. "I think that will reduce the level of risk that you enter a year with," he said.
     "Any hope for recovery of that in the near future?" O'Malley asked.
     "I don't see how in the current year, we do anything about it," Cohen said. "Budget decisions get made and then we tend to need to live with them, within the year. But absolutely, as we build the 2015-16 budget, we'll revisit all of the aspects of the fee revenues."
          Presiding Judge Brian Walsh of Santa Clara said "Please remember that efficiency and justice don't always equate. We're committed as a branch and committed as trial courts to efficiencies. We will never stop developing those and benefiting from them, but we can't efficiency our way out of a deep budget reduction, because people get hurt and justice gets hurt."
     He pointed to the $86.3 million figure, presented as a five percent increase in funding for trial court operations.
     "The five percent is great but is it sort of like -- I used to write wills for my clients 'If anybody contests this will, they get $1' -- if we aren't happy with the five percent and we ask for more, are we going to get pounded or can we say, 'five percent is a good start, now let's keep talking.'"
     Cohen laughed. "I never give anyone a hard time for advocating more money than I'm offering. People don't get penalized for being passionate advocates and bringing forward additional information," he said.
     Judge James Brandlin from Los Angeles asked about the 50 additional judgeships approved by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2007, which are still unfunded.
     "The funding for those judgeships and disbursement of those judges greatly affects two severely under resourced courts namely Riverside and San Bernardino. Each of them would receive nine judges," Brandlin said. "The question would be, what steps and what prognosis do you have about getting funding for those judgeships in the future?"
     The prognosis isn't good, Cohen replied. "There's a trade-off for everything and we do have a fixed pot. What doesn't happen if you fund those 50 judgeships? Is it that the rest of the courts around the circle have even less funding? Is it some other program outside of the judicial branch that doesn't get the funding? "
     He added, "It is a reality of our budget situation that every demand such as the additional judgeships has a reaction someplace else in our budget, but it's something we'll continue to look at."