Modest Gains for Judicial Branch in New California Budget

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s trial courts will see no new funding from the $125 billion budget the Legislature passed Thursday, but with an added $22 million for dependency counsel and the promise to backfill revenue losses from Governor Jerry Brown’s driver’s license initiative, the judiciary could have made out a lot worse.

“There’s a lot of needs and you can only feed so many of the mouths. Our share is unfortunately not what we wanted, but we’re competing against very high priorities like health, public safety, the environment, things like that,” Judicial Council finance director Zlatko Theodorovic told judges on the council’s budget committee Thursday.

The judiciary has three opportunities to get funding — from the initial budget release in January, the May revise, and the final June budget. In May, Brown released a revised budget that remained unchanged from his January proposal, which added $35.4 million in new funding to support California’s trial courts. Although the courts will retain that funding, they’ve missed their final opportunity for a potential increase.

The judiciary’s total budget stands at $3.6 billion.

While the judicial branch has regained some of the funding it lost during the recession, new initiatives could spell the loss of millions in revenue that the courts rely on to stay open, including $300 civil assessment fines for failure to appear in court.

The governor also wants to repeal the suspension of driver’s licenses for people who don’t pay traffic tickets or other fines.

One win from the final budget is the $22 million addition to ease caseloads in California’s dependency courts, where attorneys in some counties have 350 to 400 clients – well above the council’s absolute maximum of 188 per lawyer.

Two years ago, lawmakers approved an $11 million augmentation to dependency courts, but they have seen no additional funding since then and Brown did not include it in his budget package this year.

In May, 50 of the state’s presiding judges sent a letter to the legislature asking for the $22 million increase. Theodorovic said he was optimistic the money will stay in the budget, even though it wasn’t part of Brown’s initial proposal.

Lawmakers also included $25 million over two years for legal aid groups, to be distributed by the State Bar.

The budget also sticks with Brown’s plan to eliminate judges’ ability to suspend drivers’ licenses, but promises to alleviate the fiscal impact on the courts.

“What we have is a commitment from the administration to evaluate the potential revenue losses that come from that and to backfill – in essence, to hold us harmless,” Theodorovic said.

With the budget on Brown’s desk, the judiciary is looking to the future. The council’s budget committee met Thursday to figure out its funding priorities for next year.

Topping their list is funding for trial court operations, money to replace civil assessment revenue, courthouse construction and maintenance, technology initiatives, new judgeships and advocacy services like dependency counsel and help for self-represented litigants.

While the judges shrank at having to rank the proposals, committee chair Judge David Rubin urged them to give a top five.

“Each one of these is very important to us, and we’re being asked to make really difficult decisions; really cutting into the bone about how we rank these, because they’re all pretty critical to the operation of the branch,” he said. “When we talk about prioritizing, it’s not that something is less important than another, it’s that we’re really down to splitting hairs here about what is key and what’s not.”

Before listing his five, Rubin said he wanted the categories to “tell the story of the judicial branch,” which has been overlooked and fallen into disrepair.

“We are a branch that is unsustainably underfunded. We are a branch that is in a place where we’re not particularly safe for the public or employees. We are a branch that is struggling to come into the late 20th century. We’re not even so greedy as to ask to come into the 21st century, we just want to come into the late 20th century so we can better serve the public. There’s not enough of us to do the work of 38 million citizens. That’s the story I want to tell.”

 

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