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Author of Trial Court Funding Bill|Wants to Meet With Chief Justice

(CN) - While the past few months have seen plenty of rancor over court funding, the author of a controversial bill that would funnel more money directly to California's trial courts has asked for a meeting with California's chief justice.

"There hasn't been any meaningful communication. It's all been posturing and tactics. I want to see if there's a way that we can address the issues that are dividing the courts," said Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, author of AB 1208.

In addition to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, he also invited Assembly Speaker John Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, along with trial judges and labor union representatives. The bill has passed the Assembly, where Perez and Calderon hold a great deal of influence, and now awaits consideration in the state Senate where Steinberg holds sway.

The chief justice said late Wednesday she had received Calderon's letter offering a meeting. "I was pleased to receive the letter and I'm looking into it," said Cantil-Sakauye.

But Steinberg's staff said they had not yet heard of the meeting, and Steinberg would be out of town on the proposed meeting date of March 15.

Calderon said in an interview that if the chief justice accepts his offer for a meeting, it will be the first serious discussion about the structural problems with court funding that led to the introduction of AB 1208 in the first place.

"I think it would be first time we've talked specifically about the problem," Calderon said. "In our early discussions she was explaining to me that she was new and needed time to evaluate the issues at stake, and to try and find some way for her to address it, so we never discussed the issue specifically."

"Now we have a bill, we have language, we have an approach," he added. "Let's have a specific discussion about that."

One of the main forces behind the bill is a group of trial judges called the Alliance of California Judges. Kern County Superior Court Judge David Lampe said the Alliance has received a letter from Calderon inviting them to the meeing and the Alliance has written back to accept.

"I'm not sure people are on the same page as to what the bill does," Lampe said. "The first step is to have an actual discussion on the actual language of AB 1208."

Introduced last February, AB 1208 is intended to ensure that one hundred percent of money allocated by the Legislature for trial court operations actually goes to the trial courts. Currently, the Administrative Office of the Courts can siphon large sums from that allocation to support itself and to help pay for its big and controversial technology project.

Supporters of the bill argue that the bureaucrats in the administrative office have been given enormous discretion over the judicial branch's budget, leading to hundreds of millions in funds lost to wasteful spending.

Opponents of the bill, including the chief justice, the administrative agency and the governing council of judges she leads are all strongly opposed to the bill, arguing that it will diminish the chief justice's power.

Calderon said he hopes the meeting will allow both supporters and opponents to find common ground. He noted that during debate over the bill on the Assembly floor in January, legislators both for and against the bill cited out-of-control spending by the AOC while they also stressed the need to keep courts open.

In the same floor debate, legislators also pointed to a costly statewide technology project called the Court Case Management System as one example of the spending habits for which the central court bureaucracy has drawn criticism in recent years.

"During the debate on the floor, no one denied that the problems existed and that they should be worked out within the court system if possible, not necessarily in legislation," Calderon said. "I just took that to mean that members would like a resolution to this and to try to find a middle ground that suits everybody's needs."

But Calderon has no intention of dropping the bill altogether, saying, "If there is a middle ground then there has to be some kind of mechanism to ensure that it continues long after I'm gone. I think that some kind of legislation is important."

He added that Los Angeles Superior Court's recent announcement of sweeping layoffs and 50 courtroom closures only underscores the need for legislative intervention.

"I think every available dollar ought to be going to trial court operations, not CCMS or anything else," he said. "The priority as far as the Legislature is concerned is to keep the courts open. I think that's a very significant reason why 1208 is necessary."

While the chief justice and the governing council of judges argue for increased funding for the judiciary, Calderon said the bill will safeguard money the judicial branch already allocated to California's courts, and make sure that money is spent prudently."Whatever money exists, how it's spent is at issue and the top priority is trial court operations," he said.

Along with an effort to find common ground, the proposed meeting can also be seen as a bargaining session.

One of the more contentious provisions of the bill is one that would require written consent from two-thirds of the trial courts, with voting power apportioned based on population, for any big technology projects. A host of presiding judges, especially in smaller courts, fear that that biggest court in the state by far, Los Angeles, would then dominate proceedings.

Calderon said he is willing to drop that provision from the bill.

In Kern County, Lampe said the Alliance is also willing to discard that language.

"It was very interesting because it was never part of our proposal in the first place," Lampe said. "That provision actually came out in the process of trying to meet criticisms, and suddenly it drew criticism."

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