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California Central Valley Court Gets $2M Bailout

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - By a 13-3 vote Tuesday, California's top court council sent $2 million to struggling and historically impoverished San Joaquin Superior Court in the heart of the Central Valley.

In pleading for $2 million from the council to keep the court running through the end of the fiscal year, San Joaquin County Presiding Judge Robin Appel said failure to allocate additional funding to her court would result in staff layoffs and the closure of half of the court's civil departments.

San Joaquin, which is already $1 million in the red, has closed two court branches and laid off 42 workers last year. Fully staffed, the court would have 450 employees. It currently has 250.

"Quite simply, San Joaquin County is out of options, and this emergency option is a lifeline," Appel said. Last year we had an extraordinary half million dollar expense and that's all we had left in our fund balance and we used it to protect one of our judges because there was a very credible threat on his life as a result of something that was going on in one of his cases. That wiped out our fund balance.

Judge David Rosenberg from Yolo County suggested giving the court half its request and making the rest of the amount a loan. In September, the council approved a $2.5 million loan to San Francisco Superior Court, to be repaid over five years and the condition that the court report to the council on how the money was used.

"We are not in a position to repay a loan," Appel said. "We are not San Francisco. If we take it as a loan we would be lying. We would never pay it back to you, it would not be possible unless miracles happen in the state."

She added, "And next year is going to be even worse, so telling us this is going to be a loan is unrealistic because we're not going to be able to pay it back. So I don't know what else we can tell you, you know, we're not San Francisco, and we need the full $2 million. If we take the $4.4 million hit next year we will close every civil department. We will stop doing probate. We will stop doing small claims. There is nothing in our budget left to cut."

"And what other plan do you have to build up your fund balance," asked Judge Mary Ann O'Malley of Contra Costa County. She pointed out that San Joaquin has ten staff members for every judge, while her court only employs six.

"I keep asking for other people for ideas because we've done everything we think other courts are doing. And we're really open to suggestions and no one ever gives us any," Appel said, adding that the staff to judge ratio is really 7.5 to one. She said her court started cutting its budget long before any other courts were faced with funding shortages. "You know, we've lived with this kind of a budget for so long, that our cuts started years and years ago. This is new for a lot of courts to be 20 percent underfunded. You know, we've been 20% underfunded forever, so for us it's just a way of life."

Council member Judge Teri Jackson urged the council to simply give San Joaquin the money. "I am from San Francisco, but San Joaquin is different. There's just so many unpredictables. As we sit in our courtrooms, we have to apply the law to each case. And this is a different case. We can't make the same comparisons."

Other judges were concerned that more courts would come to the council with requests for money, further straining the council's $7.5 million emergency fund, and ultimately the council determined that $916,000 of the $2 million request should be granted only as a loan to be repaid over five years, while a cash grant of $1.08 million would be sent with strings attached, that include reporting on how the money is spent.

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