SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The governor’s full-funding proposal for California’s courts, which allowed San Francisco’s courts to cancel a layoff planned for one quarter of the staff, is to be paid for through a series of hikes in fees and fines plus almost $100 million taken from a court construction fund. The short-term fix of transferring funds out of the vast budgets for court construction and computers has been pushed by trial judges all over the state as a way to keep courts open.
A key member of the subcommittee considering the judicial budget signaled his approval late last week of the proposals to restore full funding for the judicial branch. “Courtrooms are overflowing,” said Republican assembly member Kevin Jeffries of Riverside.
“It’s almost a breakdown of the judicial process,” added Jeffries, who has met with a number of judges in his district. “We have to have the staffing to process these cases and have them heard in a timely manner. We’ve had tough budgets for a number of years, but I don’t think the judicial branch can handle any more cuts.”
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed full funding of the judiciary’s budget last month, abandoning a proposed $100 million cut. The news served as a reprieve to court employees in San Francisco Superior Court, where 23 percent of the staff were on the chopping block.
To any reporter visiting the courts of late, it is evident that a one-fourth staff cut would have a devastating impact on court operations. But the budget restoration that would affect all of California’s courts still has a long road to travel before passage.
“Nothing is written in stone,” said Les Spahnn, legislative budget consultant to Assemblyman Warren Furutani, who chairs the subcommittee dealing with the budget for the courts. “It may take a month or more depending on how long it takes this budget to get resolved, but there has been no legislative decision yet.”
Spahnn said the state Legislature is looking at further beefing up the money for court operations — depleted so much that the biggest counties have shut down their courts for one business day a month — by transferring construction money and hiking fines for speeding and fees for summary judgment motions.
“We’re also looking at adding $200 million from automatic speed enforcement and $130 million from additional fees to the judicial branch,” Spahnn said.
In addition, he said, the plan includes a one-time transfer of $98 million from court construction projects, a summary judgment fee increase from $250 to $500, a $3 parking fee increase and a $40 red light enforcement fine.
Two multibillion-dollar, multi-year projects for court construction and for a uniform court computer system have faced a torrent of criticism from trial judges who see closed courtrooms, along with mounting trial delays and lines extending out of the courthouse door simply to pay fines.
Announcing a first round of layoffs in March, Los Angeles County’s Presiding Judge Tim McCoy argued for a transfer of funds from the court construction budget and from the millions planned for a new computer system in order to keep the trial courts open. “What is happening today is a harbinger of what is to come,” he said. “And it will bring a very real erosion of justice.”
John Clarke, the clerk in Los Angeles, cited the Metropolitan Court just south of downtown Los Angeles, where residents were waiting two hours simply to get through security monitors and into the building. Clarke said metro court had recorded 5,400 people paying tickets and handling other matters on a typical morning, with 300 people waiting in the lobby and another 400 outside who had not been able to get inside when the court closed in the afternoon.
The governor’s proposal to transfer funds from the construction budget into court operations appears to represent a victory for the judges in Los Angeles and other regions of California who advocated for that solution, over opposition from the central policy-making body of the courts, the California Judicial Council.
The council in April rejected a proposal to transfer $47 million from the statewide court construction fund to pay for court operations in Los Angeles. The 15-2 council vote against the transfer was preceded by heated debate, with Judge Lee Edmon from Los Angeles strongly objecting to the suggestion by the council’s administrative arm that Los Angeles was exaggerating its predicament.
Referring to that arm, called the Administrative Office of the Courts, Edmon said at the time, “The AOC is not in the trenches.”
Now the matter is in the Legislature, where budget consultant Spahnn emphasized, “All of this is pending.”
Republican legislator Jeffries said his priority is to “do everything humanly possible to keep the courts functioning and operating.”
He supports giving the courts priority for existing money. “Shouldn’t the judicial branch be entitled to be in the front of the line when it comes to the funding that already exists?” he asked.
While he expressed skepticism about raising money through increased fines and fees, he also signaled that his opposition is not absolute.
“The extra money can’t hurt, though, with the cuts the judicial branch has been taking,” Jeffries said, adding that the Legislature’s passage of the budget is critical to keeping the courts open. “I’m hoping that we do and advocating that we do.”