Budget Spells Cuts for California Judiciary

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – Democrats in the California Senate were finally able to secure the votes to pass a revised budget introduced by Gov. Jerry Brown and top Democrats. The budget bill passed in the state Senate late Tuesday 21-19 after Senators Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) and Alan Lowenthal (D-Downey) cast their votes, after the Assembly approved the measure earlier in the evening 51-25.

     The budget, which Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) called “the most austere fiscal blueprint that California has seen in more than a generation,” left in a $150 million budget cut to the judicial branch, which faces an additional $200 million in cuts made earlier this year. The branch will also have to do without $310 million in debt service money for construction bonds, under the new budget bill.
     The Judicial Council has been given the power apportion the cut to the judicary’s budget, after an earlier version of the budget put the entire brunt of the cuts on the trial courts. In translation, said trial judges, that means the cuts will be decided by the Administrative Office of the Courts, the bureaucracy that has come to dominate the council.
     A survey of 29 Sacramento judges recently released by the Sacramento Superior Court heavily reflected this view. “The Judicial Council has long since shown itself to be the alter ego of the AOC,” said one judge. “Hence the council has no credibility.”
     Another judge opined, “The Judicial Council has become a rubber stamp to AOC staffers. Judges need to be running our branch instead of AOC staff.”
     The judges recommended that the council put the brakes on the Court Case Management System, $1.9 billion statewide IT project to connect California’s trial courts through a single computer system. The AOC has already invested millions in the system, which is only used in a handful of courts in the state. “The most conspicuous problem is the CCMS fiasco,” wrote one judge, who added, “we need to consider cutting our losses.”
     “Put CCMS on hold,” added another Sacramento judge in a terse, written comment. “Spend no more money on it. Keep trial courts open with that money. CCMS is of no value to trial courts.” Yet another said, “The money is needed to keep courts open, and should not be spent on a system that does not work, is over budget, and a system that the vast majority of judges do not want or need.”
     Sacramento Superior Court is one of the few California trial couts that has implemented CCMS as its case management system and the judges are familiar with software that is criticized as rigid, prone to failure and labor intensive.
     The Alliance of California Judges also called for the defunding of CCMS in a statement late Tuesday. “The Alliance believes that our branch leaders must immediately suspend all funding for CCMS. We can no longer afford to fund this massive failure,” said Alliance Director and Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard.
     But judges are not only opposed to continuing the costly project, they are also calling for deep cuts within the AOC, which in recent years has developed the reputation for flagrant spending despite the dire financial circumstances of the state’s trial courts.
     “We are disappointed that some have appeared to concede that court closures will be implemented without first eliminating all non essential administrative projects and programs,” said Gilliard. “In that respect we call on the Judicial Council to make public its line item budget for the past five years, including the line item budget for the AOC, to close all AOC regional offices and to release all temporary workers and consultants.”
      The Sacramento trial judge added, “In order to restore some confidence with the legislature we would also request that the Council immediately and publicly review the pension benefits of the top AOC administrators.”

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