SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s Judicial Council kicked off its first meeting of the year with the controversial subject of trial court funding, unanimously adopting guidelines it hopes will achieve some financial equity among the courts.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye hailed the new funding framework as “a very complex formula that is head and shoulders above what it used to be in the 90s.”
Trial courts used to be funded by the counties before the Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 established a system for statewide funding.
The ultimate goal of the legislation was to stabilize funding for the courts, but over the years judges have complained of inequity, with some courts ending up severely underfunded and others getting more.
In 2012, the council started thinking about how it could make things a bit fairer and more stable, and unburden some of the courts that had been historically underfunded.
When a new funding model was first developed by trial judges and court clerks in 2013, it was meant to consider a court’s workload as the basis for its funding allocation.
The Workload-Based Allocation and Funding Methodology, as it later became known, considered the complexity of case filings in all the courts and used U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics on local government employee wages per county as a multiplier. It also accounted for “unique factors” in each county, such as a high proportion of certain case types.
The plan was rolled out over five years, and the council’s Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee made modifications along the way.
But the model was far from perfect, and a number of courts raised objections. A consortium of judges and head clerks from of small courts – Amador, Colusa, Del Norte, Glenn, Inyo, Lake, Lassen, Mariposa, Modoc, Mono, Plumas, Sierra, Siskiyou, and Trinity counties – urged the committee to slow down, saying five years was not enough time to predict how the courts will be affected.
In a letter to Cantil-Sakauye, the group said the BLS factor was an unfair and inaccurate way of basing a court’s funding allocation, as it assigns a value to court employees estimated from the pool of similar jobs in that county. The judges from small courts worried that the BLS factor favored wealthier counties, since it tied court funding to the county’s economy.
“The result is, a poor county’s court stays poor, and rich county’s court stays rich,” the judges wrote. “This is aggravated by the fact that in wealthier counties, high value labor earns more than the courts pay, so that the BLS ratio is favorable and these courts receive more money through WAFM. In poor counties, by contrast, the courts are often the highest paying employers, meaning that the BLS ratio is unfavorable and funding for their labor costs is restricted.”
On Friday, Judicial Council member Justice Harry Hull asked Judge Jonathan Conklin, who chairs the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee, whether the small courts still objected to WAFM moving forward.
“Our perception is they do not object,” Conklin said. “This was candidly one of the more spirited discussions in the room.” Conklin said the labor statistics was one of the examples of compromise, adding, “I don’t want to speak for them but I think they at least accepted the BLS outcome.”
Presiding Judge Todd Bottke of Tehama County, a council member, said the plan isn’t perfect, but appears to take the smaller courts’ concerns into consideration.
“No one’s happy about 100 percent of WAFM as it’s existed and how it will exist in the future but I think the committee took into consideration a lot of the issues that the smaller courts face,” he said. “You’re talking about things that cannot be accounted for by pure numbers when it comes to caseload and whatnot.”
He added, “Although there’s no 100 percent solution on the horizon, I think the best methodology that could be applied that was fair is there.”
Cantil-Sakauye praised the model as a symbol of progress.
“Like many of you, I was a trial judge when the counties set our budget,” she said. “And how equitable or inequitable it was depended on your relationship with your county board and how persuasive you were in your community and the nature of your community. And we have come a long way.”