SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California Gov. Jerry Brown’s $131.7 billion budget proposed Wednesday invests $150 million to support trial court operations and commits $32 million to build new courthouses.
In a statement, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye seemed much happier with this year’s funding boost over last year’s modest $35 million raise.
“I thank Gov. Brown for this very strong budget proposal for the Judicial Branch. The laws promise liberty and protection for all Californians, and our courts ensure that the promise of the law is fulfilled,” she said. “With this proposed budget, the courts will be better equipped to truly provide access to justice for all.”
Brown’s proposal directs the Judicial Council to allocate $75 million in discretionary dollars to the courts based on recommendations made by the Commission on the Future of California’s Court System, a group assembled by Cantil-Sakauye in 2015 to set priorities for the courts.
Last year, Cantil-Sakauye said those priorities include improving resources for self-represented litigants, making some court services technology-based, and moving traffic cases out of criminal court over the next 10 years.
The $150 million funding increase includes $19 million to expand self-help services for litigants without lawyers, $4 million for interpreter services and $3.4 million for a five-year pilot project to adjudicate minor traffic violations online. According to the state Department of Finance, the pilot “should eventually free up judicial resources for other program areas.”
Brown also proposed $47.8 million from the general fund for trial courts that are currently funded under 76.9 percent of their overall need, in an effort to equalize funding between all 58 county courts.
Brown’s budget also seems to signal a re-commitment to investing in judicial infrastructure, pledging $32 million from the Immediate and Critical Needs Account to complete courthouse construction design in Riverside, Sonoma and Stanislaus counties.
Established by Senate Bill 1407, the fund authorized $5 billion in 2008 to build or renovate courthouses in 32 counties across California. That money mostly comes from fines and fees for misdemeanors and traffic tickets. But since 2009, the Legislature has swiped at least $1.4 billion from the fund and hasn’t paid it back.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Brown’s finance director Michael Cohen said the administration is committed to getting new courthouses built.
According to budget documents from the Department of Finance, the state has promised to ensure funding through lease revenue bonds to start construction on projects Imperial, Riverside, Shasta, Siskiyou, and Tuolumne counties this fiscal year, and in Glenn, Sacramento, Sonoma, and Stanislaus counties in 2019-20.
“We have a fund that’s used to fund courthouse construction that’s been fully committed at this point,” Cohen said. “So we are using $32 million of that this year to continue to do some planning, but then after that we’ll have to have lease revenue bonds backed by the general fund to pay for the construction of the courthouses. So it is over $1 billion for those 10 courthouses.”
On Wednesday, Brown also addressed the longstanding vacancy on the California Supreme Court left by Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar, who retired on Aug. 31, saying “It’s going very well.”
In answer to a reporter’s question about how the search is going, he laughed and said, “I’m searching my mind. This is not something that I want to do too quickly because it’s very important now. I’ve appointed three and the fourth can be very decisive so I want to understand how that decisiveness should work.”
Brown last appointed Justice Leondra Kruger in November 2014, ending a nine-month vacancy created by Justice Joyce Kennard’s retirement that was the longest in court history. He appointed Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar to replace retiring Justice Marvin Baxter in July 2014, and nominated Justice Goodwin Liu in July 2011.