California Courts See Funding Boost in Budget Proposal

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget package includes $381.1 million in new funding for the judiciary, a proposal the state’s chief justice praised as “welcome news.”

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

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom reflected cautious optimism in his proposed 2021-22 budget package that proposes no new cuts for the courts, instead offering a slight funding increase to help the judiciary continue operating during a turbulent time.

Newsom’s January budget proposal includes $381.1 million in new funding for the courts, including $72.2 million in ongoing funding — a 3.7% increase over 2020’s budget — to help courts deal with case backlogs and operational setbacks triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meeting with reporters last month, Judicial Council administrative director Martin Hoshino said the 10% baseline funding cut in the 2020 budget was a crushing blow.

“January was wonderful. It was a turn the corner, full sails up kind of event. And I’m still having a hard time watching the demolition that happened afterwards and how quickly it happened,” Hoshino said.

But the state’s top judicial administrator said he tried to remain optimistic about the future. 

“I saw the governor’s office and the Legislature start to recognize the vital role of the judiciary in the very fabric of a government’s core services,” Hoshino said. “I like to think that we won’t suffer the amount of cuts related to the Great Recession and that the deficits hopefully won’t be as bad.”

Hoshino’s hopeful outlook seems to have paid off. In addition to the $72.2 million intended to “assist courts in continuing to provide fair and timely access to justice,” Newsom’s budget includes $19.1 million to self-help services for unrepresented litigants, $2.1 billion over the next five years to fund courthouse construction, and $54.8 million over the next five years to expand a program that helps low-income people reduce their fines and fees for traffic citations and other infractions.

Newsom also wants the Legislature to approve $11.7 million this year to help courts handle an impending rush of eviction and small claims cases when the statewide eviction moratorium expires on Jan. 31.

The Legislature passed a law last year that delayed eviction cases until Feb. 1, 2021, and allows landlords to seek payment of unpaid rent through small claims court through Feb. 1, 2025. 

While the governor has urged lawmakers to extend that law, his proposed budget acknowledges an expected surge of unlawful detainer and small claims filings “will result in a significant increase in workload for the trial courts beginning in 2020-21.” and that “the administration proposes that the Legislature take action on this funding early in 2021.”

Newsom’s proposal also builds on a program California Supreme Court Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye launched at the end of December to address the significant backlog of criminal cases in the state’s trial courts. 

Her program will use retired judges from the Temporary Assigned Judges Program to help courts mitigate criminal trial delays and recommends that courts conduct “readiness conferences” to discuss plea bargains or other resolutions before trial. 

Newsom said he intends to work with the Legislature to establish a “Pandemic Early Disposition Calendar Program” that could result in some defendants having their criminal cases dismissed if they have no new violations or charges and are in a diversion program. “This program is intended to maintain public safety, reduce the number of pending criminal cases within the trial courts, and provide victims and offenders more timely resolution,” his budget proposal says. 

On Friday, Cantil-Sakauye praised Newsom’s budget as “welcome news.”

“It is careful and cautious, but also reflects his concern for those trying to access our court system during a pandemic,” she said.

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