California Judicial Branch Scrambles for Budget Dollars

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Judges and court clerks from across California convened Thursday to consider a range of trial court funding priorities that will comprise the core of budget talks with the Legislature in the coming months.

Central to Thursday’s discussion was the need for new money from California’s general fund to replace falling revenue from failure-to-appear penalties that courts can impose on people who don’t show up in court after being charged with traffic infractions, misdemeanors or felonies. Typically, offenders are given notice before such fines are assessed.

These $300 civil assessments can also be inflicted on offenders who disobey court orders or fail to pay their traffic tickets or other fines, and have lately been very unpopular with Governor Jerry Brown’s administration.

In 2015, Brown offered amnesty to reduce some traffic fine debt for the poor, a program supported by the state’s chief justice, Tani Cantil-Sakauye. In his January budget plan for 2017-18, Brown proposed repealing the suspension of defendants’ driver’s licenses when they fail to pay traffic tickets or other fines—a move that spells a loss of tens of millions in revenue for the courts, cities, counties and special state programs.

Jake Chatters, the head clerk of Placer County Superior Court, said the reliance on fine and fee revenue creates the perception of a conflict of interest that courts generally want to avoid.

“A big portion of our concern is about ensuring we don’t degrade the services courts provide through revenue loss, and that sometimes gets confused [with] us sounding like we disagree with dialogue about policy changes,” Chatters told the judiciary’s Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee.

He said civil assessments are especially tricky. “By their nature civil assessments can give that appearance of a conflict of interest.”

“It hinders our efforts to discuss the revenue decline because it gets tied up in this broader policy discussion, and it would be good for us to get back to the policy discussion without having to worry about the revenue,” Chatters said. “We need to make sure we aren’t degrading our services, but we need to be part of the policy discussion without there being a perception that the revenue is guiding our discussions.”

One way of countering this would be to send the fine revenue directly to the state’s general fund, then adjust the judiciary’s general fund allocation by a comparable amount.

Sherri Carter, committee member and head clerk of Los Angeles County Superior Court, said she was on board with the idea. “We have not done a very good job making it clear that civil assessments have become part of our operating budget,” she said. “If we start giving the money back and having it reallocated, as it goes down it’s clearer that it’s part of our operational money. We haven’t done a good job tying how we’ve used that money to run our court and this would help us do that.”

“I think we would all be in agreement that if civil assessments go away, you break our backs,” said Judge Jonathan Conklin of Fresno, who chairs the budget advisory committee. “I’m trying not to be overly dramatic about this, but this has become a critical funding source to the courts. The policy perspective is this is really a trade-off. These are existing dollars—we’re just asking to account for the funding stream in a different way.”

Based on his experience working with the Department of Finance, Judicial Council member and advisor to the committee John Wardlaw said the committee will need to devise a strong game plan if it plans to compete with health and human services, education and the Department of Corrections for general fund money.

“What is that really, really compelling soundbite we can come up with?” he asked. “Intuitively, everyone understands that we need to be operating our courts, there’s not a question about that. There isn’t a really good understanding in the Legislature and executive branch about what these decisions really mean to our courts and the people of California. It’s not resonating. The defenders of the general fund have a zillion priorities they’re going to safeguard before we get an opportunity to knock on the door.”

Committee member Judge James Herman of Santa Barbara said perhaps the judiciary should frame the issue in terms of revenue loss hurting the impoverished Californians Brown’s amnesty was intended to help. “The core of this from the gubernatorial and legislative perspective is there are people who are financially challenged in terms of civil assessments,” Herman said. “I think the soundbite here is that this is the same population that we provide a tremendous service to. It takes away our ability to serve the same people.”

Judge Joyce Hinrichs of Humboldt County said, “I think we need to say the courts don’t even want to be in the collection business or the deciding fines business and there should be a better way of addressing the whole issue of fines.”

The committee voted to pass the concept along to the Judicial Branch Budget Committee, another group that recommends budget change proposals to the full Judicial Council.

It also voted to forward proposals to fund juvenile dependency courts, and to provide an ongoing $41 million in annual inflationary funding, the equivalent of a 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase for trial court employees.