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California Courts Trying to Slice Smaller Pie

SACRAMENTO (CN) - With time running out, a group of judges and state officials appointed by the Chief Justice confronted the problem of allocating sharply reduced funds among California's 58 trial courts.

The process of dividing a smaller financial pie is complicated by a chorus of complaints from individual courts, saying they are underfunded.

"We're down to our last two-day meeting and we've hardly defined funding at all, which is in our workgroup's name -- funding and allocations. The heart of that matter is what will our recommendations be on funding?" said Justice Harry Hull, chair of the Trial Court Funding Workgroup.

"We have to approach what we're doing now on the assumption that things aren't going to get any better very soon," Hull urged. "We need to fold that into how do we deal with where we are now. Hopefully that will change, but we can't afford not to be realists."

After five hours of discussion, the committee consensus was to meet next month and decide on recommendatinos for allocating funds among courts that span the length and width of the state.

In November last year, Governor Jerry Brown and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye ordered the group to evaluate whether the judiciary was meeting the goals of the 1997 Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act, landmark legislation that transferred control of local court funds and policy to a central bureaucracy.

At Tuesday's meeting, the group examined the Resource Allocation Model from 2005, a method of determining how many employees courts need to handle their caseloads. This model has also been used to figure out which courts are under-resourced.

Former Chief Deputy Director of Finance Diane Cummins said she was concerned that the committee did not have the proper analysis to make funding recommendations.

"I don't think we've seen an analysis of the data to lead us to understand where we are vis-a-vis the governor's and chiefs request of the committee looking at how we've met the goals," said Cummins. "There is that big issue out there of equal access and how does that equate to funding by court and it seems like we're jumping to recommendations and we don't have anything to base those recommendations on."

"We've seen some information by court but it's just data points it's not analysis," Cummins added. "I'm struggling with how we're getting to the next step."

The group looked favorably on a new budget process presented by Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento that would take into account each court's staffing, equipment, technology and program costs. It also adds a special component that allows courts to request ongoing or one-time funding for a cost unique to that court.

"One example is geography," said Earl. "Those who have regional courts have different needs. Some courts may have a complex litigation department which requires additional staff. One court may have a high profile case that requires additional security. Courts would submit a request and provide justification for additional funding."

|She added that the state's presiding judges, who worked alongside its court executive officers in developing the new budget method, are still setting up criteria for the request process.

"We're going to have to make some value judgments," said committee member Angela Davis. "Almost all the courts in the state could make the case that they're underfunded. So what is underfunded, what is severely underfunded and what is intolerably underfunded? Even in the reallocation process, the final step of distributing to courts in unique situations, I can see a lot of disagreement as to what's a unique factor that warrants some kind of special allocation."

Presiding Judge David Rosenberg, also a committee member, added, "We're dealing with two big questions. What is a better system of allocation? That's the big elephant in the room. The other is somehow the funding for the judicial system is too low, so arguably all courts have a disparity. But I'm not sure this group is charged with that issue. We have to deal with the funding as it exists. It's a political decision that will have to be made by the Governor and the Legislature."

The group will meet for the final time at the end of March, and in April is expected to present its funding recommendations to the Judicial Council.

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