Budget Group OKs Cuts to California Courts

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A seven-hour meeting of the Judicial Council’s budget committee culminated in deep cuts to California’s trial courts and a one-year delay of an expensive and widely criticized IT project.
     While the judiciary’s bureaucrats had proposed a 15.2 percent across-the-board cut to all divisions within the branch, including its own administrative agency and the trial courts, the committee decided to hold off on applying that cut until next fiscal year.          
      Meanwhile, trial courts will endure an 8.8 percent cut this year and the Supreme Court and Courts of Appeal will take 9.7 percent. The Judicial Council and bureaucratic staff at the Administrative Office of the Courts will see a 12 percent funding reduction.          
     Presiding Judge Beth Labson Freeman of San Mateo said the meeting had been “productive,” and while a statement from the Judicial Council described the discussions as “lively,” Freeman said she could not elaborate on any of the debate. “I can say it was a serious discussion,” the committee-member said.
     The committee also voted down an AOC proposal to delay the controversial Court Case Management System by six months with a vote of 11-13, opting instead by a vote of 15-10 to hold off on installing the latest iteration of the computer system in several courts by a full year.
      However, some judges say the cuts to the bureaucracy don’t go far enough, nor does delaying CCMS compensate for the money that is alrea dy being poured into maintaining it in handful of courts.
      According to AOC documents, the agency proposed approval of $75.668 million from the Trial Court Trust Fund, a fund many judges contend is needed to keep the courts open, for “technology infrastructure programs.” More specifically, this means paying for earlier versions of the system used by few courts, and for the California Court Technology Center, a Phoenix-based server run by a vendor that houses CCMS data.
     “Once again, court leadership has decided to preserve the central bureaucracy in San Francisco at the expense of local trial courts. The one year suspension of CCMS does nothing to rectify the mismanagement, lack of oversight and waste,” said a statement from the Alliance of California Judges that also noted the committee had accepted an AOC recommendation to fund roughly $70 million for CCMS-related maintenance costs. “On-going costs for CCMS continue unabated. This failed and out-dated technology experiment has cost the branch $600 million to date, and it needs to be ended now.”
      The Alliance also pointed out that the budget committee had not even considered axing the “lavish” pension benefits enjoyed by the AOC’s top executives. They suggested the AOC’s budget be cut by 50 percent, saying, “The AOC staff is not the best judge of how it should reduce its own existence, nor should they be put in a position to evaluate the projects they have championed.”
      Presiding Judge Lee Edmon of Los Angeles, a member of the budget committee, and said that painful ongoing cuts to the judicial branch will “require a fundamental restructuring of the courts.” She said that yesterday she had urged the committee “to recommend additional funding for the trial courts, which would allow us to do that restructuring in a responsible manner. Lacking such funding, the courts would be forced to begin an immediate restructuring which would mean closing civil courts, shuttering courthouses, and reducing clerk’s windows hours. That is precisely the unacceptable result that the Chief Justice warned against again and again.”

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