Calif. Budget Plan Forces Courts to Innovate

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget sent another $146.3 million to the state’s courts, along with a message that the judicial branch needs to innovate.
     In a statement shortly after the budget release, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said, “The governor’s proposed budget would help make courts more accessible, efficient, and equitable for court users.”She added, “Much of the new funding would be focused on innovations to benefit court users at all levels of our court system. The proposed budget reflects a steady but cautious new investment in the judicial branch since fiscal year 2012-2013.”
     Brown’s 2016-17 budget for the judiciary totals $3.8 billion.
     Along with $75 million to offset shrinking revenue from fines and fees, $15.6 million for trial court employee benefit costs, and $20 million for discretionary trial court operations, Brown’s budget includes $30 million to fund a grant program as an incentive for courts to find more modern and efficient ways of doing business.
     “The projects funded by the grants must have measurable results or benefits that have a demonstrated impact on the court and the public it serves,” Brown said in his budget summary. He cited, among other programs, Fresno Superior Court’s holding of remote video proceedings for traffic violations.
     “Additional innovative programs could include a self-scheduling system for traffic courts, the use of kiosks for traffic court proceedings, and the development of electronic recordings in family courts,” he said.
     In his continued pursuit of cost-cutting measures for the judiciary, Brown also said he will look to reduce the number of peremptory challenges in misdemeanor cases from 10 to six.
     This proposal has been broached several times in the Legislature, in the form of bills backed by the Judicial Council and groups like the California Judges Association. The most recent effort was SB 213, which stalled in the Assembly’s public safety committee and is now a two-year bill. A similar bill, SB 794, also failed to make it out of that committee in 2014.
     Echoing arguments used by supporters of those past efforts, Brown said, “Six challenges per side is the current average, and additional challenges unnecessarily add delays to proceedings.”
     In an email statement, Judge Eric Taylor, California Judges Association president, said, “We greatly appreciate Gov. Brown including peremptory challenges, something CJA has been working on for several years. We have had discussions with other justice partners on this issue, and those will continue.”
     He added, “It is our hope that these proposals will be sustained through the budget process. We look forward to working together with the governor and our justice partners to restore stable funding for the courts.”
     Brown’s budget package also touched on what has become a sore subject among trial court judges – a lack of individual reserve funds for the courts.
     Three years ago, he decided to sweep individual trial courts’ reserve funds in excess of 1 percent into a statewide pot to be managed by the Judicial Council. That reserve consists of 2 percent of the total amount of money California sends to the trial courts in a given year. Courts are only allowed to apply for emergency funds from that statewide pot at the end of each fiscal year.
     Judges and court clerks recoiled at the idea of having their carefully built reserves stripped away, but the measure passed as part of the 2012-13 budget package over their objections and remains a part of the judiciary’s statewide fiscal policy.
     This year, Brown proposed a new reserve policy to send $10 million to the trial court trust fund for emergencies throughout the year.

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