California Court Administrator Grapples With Crippling Covid Cuts

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — California’s Judicial Council deliberated Friday over how to apportion both crippling budget cuts and some one-time emergency funding for courts struggling with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The seal of the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts. (Photo the Judicial Council of California via YouTube)

The budget package signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in June included $50 million in total emergency funding to alleviate mountainous case backlogs caused by monthslong court shutdowns from Covid-19. It also included a painful $168.7 million ongoing cut to court operations.

The council took up the budget cut first, voting to parcel out the $167.8 million reduction to each of the state’s 58 trial courts based on workload.

Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee chair Judge Jonathan Conklin said the committee established a statewide average funding band of 4%. Courts falling within that range will take a pro rata cut. The courts that are currently funded above the average line — with the exception of the smallest courts — would take that pro rata cut plus an additional 1%. The extra cut will allow courts below the funding band to take less of a hit.

“We can try to all, as uncomfortable as it is to say, instead of share the gain share the pain,” Conklin told the council Friday. “Unfortunately everybody has to share in the cut, but those courts that are above the average funding range can take little bit more of a hit on that cut to the benefit of those courts that are below the range.”

And just as all courts are expected to share the pain, they’ll also share in a portion of the $50 million in emergency funding, the first half of which will be distributed to the courts pro rata based on workload.

“It essentially takes each trial court’s share of the overall budget and allocates the $50 million,” Conklin explained. “A trial court that might get 2% of the overall general fund budget for trial courts would get 2% of the $50 million.”

Conklin’s committee proposed immediately distributing the full $50 million to the courts struggling to address immediate needs and plan for an uncertain future in the face of ever-changing state health guidelines.

“Our thought in saying we need the money instantly is because we’re moving so quickly,” Conklin said. “I talked to a judge the other day who on paper doesn’t appear to be immediately impacted, but is very concerned that they’re going to become a hotspot tomorrow and wants to make sure that if they do become a hotspot they can immediately react to that to reduce workload.”

But Justice Brad Hill, a member of the council, suggested that the $50 million be split into two portions, with some need-based criteria established for the second half. “I was thinking that perhaps a staggered distribution has some merit given the need to demonstrate to the Legislature and the governor that we are being good stewards of the public funds,” he said, adding courts should report on how they used their first distribution and their plans for the second.

Hill said this will likely entail a lot of work on the part of the courts and the council’s budget advisory committee, but seems necessary given the council may need to seek additional emergency dollars from the Legislature. “This need for additional funds may extend beyond this $50 million, and we may need to be prepared to make a documented case for additional funds to the Legislature. And those funds will never come unless we fully document our ongoing needs,” he said.

Judge David Rubin of San Diego, who chairs the council budget committee, said, “Whatever we do with this money, it needs to be flexible enough to contemplate new changes in our operations, as new shelter in place are rolled out or rolled out differently and how those will impact our backlogs.”

He moved that Conklin’s committee develop a more precise definition of what a Covid-related backlog is, and that the committee gather data from the courts on how they spent their first $25 million. Both factors will guide how the council distributes the second $25 million.

“It gives us a baseline of what we’ve done and we can show the governor’s office and legislative branch where we spent the money,” Rubin said.

Conkin said he was concerned about how the timing might affect each court’s chances of getting their share of the second round of funding. “I would hate to create the restriction that if on the first day those funds are available and you don’t meet the criteria, you give them up. Allow the courts the time they need. We all know the folks are going to need some time to put this data together.”

Rubin said the committee will have flexibility to decide what to do after the data comes in.

“We’re going to see what the need is,” he said. “There may be counties that have dealt with it with the first distribution and won’t need it.”

The budget cuts come as Congress debates a new pandemic stimulus bill that could send $14 billion in funding to California. 

“The system is setting up to execute and implement that reduction, but there is a hope and a trigger for restoration in the form of the $150 million — and the trigger is the federal government by the passage of a second pandemic relief budget act that would then restore $14 billion to the state of California,” Judicial Council staff director Martin Hoshino said. “If that happens there’s the prospect of $150 million of that $14 billion being restored.”

Also Friday, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye also delivered the news that temporary rules halting evictions and foreclosure proceedings in the courts could soon be rescinded. 

“The council will very soon resume voting to terminate the temporary orders having to do with unlawful detainer evictions and foreclosures,” she said.

 If the council votes to terminate the two rules, the rescission will be effective Aug. 14.

Cantil-Sakauye said the issue rests with the governor and Legislature, and the Aug. 14 deadline should give the legislative and executive branches more time to deliberate, hold hearings and pass legislation.

“I urge our sister branches to turn their attention to this critical work to protect people from the devastating effect of this pandemic and its recent resurgence,” she said. 

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