Audit of Court Spending Set for Wednesday Hearing Before Assembly Budget Committee

     (CN) – The California Assembly’s powerful budget committee is scheduled on Wednesday to take up an audit of judicial spending that represents the culmination of years of criticism and anger over millions of dollars wasted by the administrative bureaucracy of California’s courts.
     The path to tomorrow’s meeting was cleared by State Auditor Elaine Howle who in January published a withering report on spending by the judicial bureaucracy, blasting its self indulgences, including a fleet of unneeded cars, excessive catering bills, lavish pension perks for the top brass and enormous salaries far above those in the executive branch.
     Howle concluded that the bureaucracy, called the Administrative Office of the Courts, operated largely unchecked, with the Judicial Council acting more in a “ministerial,” or rubber stamp, capacity.
     Following on the audit, the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office published a budget analysis in February recommending greater legislative control over billions of dollars spent on the courts. “The Legislature has no assurance that the proposed funds will be used in a manner consistent with its priorities,” said the analysis.
     The analysis pointed to a particular court fund that is dipped into for special projects but which devotes the lion’s share of its money to technology, including the maintenance of the remnants of a disastrous software project that wasted a half-billion dollars in public money.
     That special fund, called the Improvement and Modernization Fund, is currently on the brink of insolvency. It has taken in $44 million this year but court officials have spent $66 million, much of it for maintenance of the remnants of the now-defunct software project called the Court Case Management System.
     As one judge put it, the court bureaucracy continues to spend money “like a drunken sailor.”
     Overall funding for the California courts peaked in 2010 at roughly $4 billion and then fell year by year to $3.3 billion in 2012. It has gradually increased since then, and is expected to reach $3.7 billion in fiscal year 2015-16, with Governor Jerry Brown recently proposing an additional $90 million specifically for the trial courts.
     The budget analysis said trial courts should account for how they spend those public funds — before and after they receive the money. It also recommended the Legislature establish standards to measure how the courts are doing their job.
     Anita Lee with the Legislative Analyst’s Office said in an interview, “The Legislature has the power of appropriation and it is its responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being used in a cost effective manner.”
     But some California judges have bridled at the notion that independent California courts should be forced to follow priorities dictated by lawmakers.
     “Each trial court should be given flexibility to decide where the money should be spent. I can’t imagine how a cookie cutter approach could be used with trial court funding,” said Judge Joan Weber, president of the California Judges Association, in an email.
     “I know all 58 trial courts strive to spend all taxpayer money judiciously. I think it would be very difficult to come up with one set of legislative priorities for all 58 trial courts. Through this devastating $1.2 billion cut in funding for the branch, the trial courts have had to make cuts individually based on the needs of their communities,” she wrote.
     “One county may have had to close a courthouse; one county may have had to lay off employees. We have a county with over 500 judges and counties with 2 judges,” wrote Weber who works as a trial judge in San Diego. “As the trial courts come out of this funding crisis, each court will have to respond differently depending on each court’s individual needs and where the cuts had been made.”
     Judge Kent Hamlin, a director with the Alliance of California Judges, laid much of the fault for the judiciary’s troubles on the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     “The AOC is spending like a drunken sailor,” he said.
     The Alliance has campaigned for years to curb the power and spending of the administrative office, and it pushed for the audit of administrative office spending. Hamlin said legislators should now distinguish between the hard-pressed trial courts in California’s 58 counties and the central bureaucracy in San Francisco.
     “The attitude they have is we’re all in one big pot, and if they actually come to these courts, they could start to see. We’re leaner and meaner and that’s had to take place. When they see overfunded courts and the AOC they assume we’re all in the same boat,” he added.
     Historically underfunded courts like Fresno, San Bernardino and Riverside have not caught up, Hamlin said, pointing out that Fresno Superior has permanently shuttered all five of its regional courthouses.
     “They’ve engaged in this fiction that they’ve been restoring all this money to us, but if you look at what we had in 2007-08, I’m confident what we’re being given is not what we were given then,” said Hamlin. “We have less money than we’ve had and we’ve been required to do more with it.”
     On the agenda for Wednesday’s hearing at the Legislature is a review of the state auditor’s findings, but the discussion will almost inevitably include the budget analysis recommendations for greater supervision of funds allotted to the judiciary.
     The hearing is before the Assembly’s Budget Committee and Joint Legislative Audit Committee, with Assembly Member Mark Stone (D-Monterey), who heads the assembly’s Judiciary Committee, also expected to participate.
     “Californians deserve equal, timely access to justice through a responsibly managed court system,” Stone wrote in an email. “As the new chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, I look forward to working with the Judicial Council and budget committee to address the issues identified in the report.”
     Judge Laurie Earl, a trial court judge in Sacramento and chair of the Judicial Council’s budget advisory committee, said that the restoration of some funding may have created unrealistic expectations.
     “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but it’s not a significant reinvestment in the branch. You’ve had some courts that have had to take major steps to adjust to the level of funding they got, which means closed courthouses. The Legislature needs to make a very informed decision, and understand what prior cuts have been made in their communities. They seem to think we can restore services, but with the amount being proposed, I don’t know if that will happen,” she said.
     Earl added that she agrees with the notion of accountability, in principle.
     “I think courts should be accountable to the Legislature and to the public. We’re at a time when the Legislature has a heightened sense of nervousness because of the actions courts had to take in terms of closing courtrooms.”
     However, she said, legislative priorities may not be so easily implemented across-the-board.
     “I don’t know that each court could come up with a priority that’s the same. Sacramento’s priority might be different from Modoc’s. The legislature’s priorities have been on access to justice and I know the governor’s is too. But again, enhancing access to some might not be the same for others.”
     Lee with the LAO said increasing access to court services is only an example suggested by her office, and it is up to the Legislature to come up with a more complete list of priorities. “It is the Legislature’s prerogative to set policy,” she said.
     In the budget analysis from her office, the Improvement and Modernization Fund was shown as an example of the need for supervision from the Legislature.
     While roughly half of the fund goes to technology projects, it also is used to pay for court interpreters, day care centers, judicial education, subscriptions to publications and self-help centers. But overspending by the administrative office and an underestimation of revenues from filing fees and traffic tickets have left it teetering on the precipice of insolvency.
     The fund has a projected balance of only $3 million for the start of the next fiscal year in July.
     The Legislative Analyst’s Office noted that there are very few restrictions on how the fund can be used. “A key question for the Legislature to consider is what the purpose of the IMF is,” said the LAO budget analysis.
     Lee said her office noted the need for a required spending plan before the fund is allocated any more money. She said, “The legislature should be more specific as to what it wants to be spent from the IMF because it’s in such a state of flux.”
     Earl said her budget committee is meeting this week to hammer out a plan to reduce the deficit in the Improvement and Modernization Fund. “I think the LAO is correct that we’ve been doing one-year budgets from the IMF and we can’t sustain that anymore,” Earl said. “We’ll be making some decisions that won’t be popular.”

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