SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The California Judicial Council rejected a proposal to transfer $47 million from a $5-billion statewide court construction fund to Los Angeles Superior Court to avoid mass layoffs, a move being pushed by Los Angeles’ judicial leadership. The 15-2 vote was preceded by heated debate between judges, with Judge Lee Edmon strongly objecting to the Administrative Office of the Court’s suggestion that Los Angeles is exaggerating its predicament. “The AOC should not be publicly criticizing any of the trial courts’ attempts to manage this critical situation,” said Edmon, who will take over as Los Angeles’ presiding judge in January. “The AOC is not in the trenches every day.”
Edmon, who joined Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David Wesley in voting against the decision, called the AOC’s finding “an unnecessary second-guessing of Los Angeles’ judgment” and said the office “is questioning the difficult decisions that trial courts have to make.”
The AOC’s investigation of Los Angeles’ $47 million request stemmed from a February letter sent to the Judicial Council by Los Angeles Superior’s incumbent Presiding Judge Tim McCoy, asking that the funds needed to keep Los Angeles courts open be taken from the Immediate and Critical Needs Account established by State Senate Bill 1407 for the upkeep of statewide courthouses.
In his presentation before the Judicial Council, AOC Assistant Finance Director Stephen Nash said Los Angeles Superior had “overestimated” the amount of employees it would have to lay off in October, as well as the amount of money needed to avoid those layoffs. After an extensive review, the AOC determined that 150 positions, not 500, would need to be cut, and that Los Angeles Superior only needed about $30 million to forestall its staggering financial woes.
Some judges challenged the AOC’s apparent criticism of Los Angeles Superior’s numbers. Judge Michael Vicencia of Los Angeles questioned the relevance of whether 150 or 500 employees’ jobs were at stake. “I see the weight on the shoulders of the presiding judges, and to debate whether they’re making the right decision in their courts is not helpful,” he said. “If the goal is to get money, then why are we saying, well you don’t really need $47 million?”
Although the AOC acknowledged Los Angeles Superior’s fiscal problems, it recommended that the Judicial Council decline the court’s request for funds until more sources of revenue could be found. The AOC suggested asking the state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for more money, perhaps from the general fund.
The state legislature in 2008 set aside $5 billion for construction and maintenance of 41 courthouses around California. Construction unions and some court officials, including Michael Roddy, the chief executive in San Diego Superior Court, have defended the use of those funds for upkeep and new construction.
In an interview after Friday’s meeting, Judge McCoy said AOC’s analysis of Los Angeles’ financial crisis is wrong, and the Judicial Council’s decision to seek other funding sources is “a sad day for justice and the state of California.”
“It’s inevitable that they need to change their minds because the state is running out of money,” McCoy said, noting the absurdity of asking the state Legislature for more money in light of California’s $21 billion deficit.
“They’re not offering anything other than vague generalities. What they’re doing is putting off until tomorrow what needs to be done today. The time has come to face the dangers we are in head on.”