California Judicial Council Talks Budget

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Though Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget gives California trial courts $90.6 million in new funding, the state Judicial Council slashed $22.7 million across the board to address a shortfall in a critical fund for trial court operations. At the same meeting, the council shelved a controversial proposal to move oversight of spending to a committee that regularly meets behind closed doors.
     The courts have seen diminished revenues from case filing fees and penalties for two fiscal years now. Brown’s budget included $66 million to compensate for that deficit, but the Trial Court Trust Fund is still short $22.7 million.
     At its meeting Friday, the council voted unanimously to take the money out of the $90.6 million before it is allocated to the courts.
     “It was all of our hopes that that money would be restored and would be there ongoing so we would not be facing a $22.7 million deficit,” Placer County head clerk Jake Chatters told the council in a presentation prior to the vote.
     “Unfortunately at this point, it appears that is not going to be filled,” added Chatters, who sits on the Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee.
     The council also briefly addressed the recently abandoned effort to amend a rule of court that would transfer the authority to oversee trial-court spending decisions from the largely transparent Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee to the Advisory Committee on Financial Accountability and Efficiency, which meets infrequently and often in private.
     Judges on the budget committee were among those vehemently against the proposal. The Alliance of California Judges and labor groups also complained that the budget committee’s open meetings policy and history of reviewing trial-court spending made it the appropriate body to hold that authority.
     The suggested rule change came in the wake of a scathing report by the California state auditor, who in January published findings that the Judicial Council’s staff, formerly called the Administrative Office of the Courts, spent $386 million over four years on statewide services that nearly half of California’s 58 trial courts don’t use – including $186 million on contractors and consultants.
     The proposal, which originated in the council’s Executive and Planning Committee chaired by Justice Douglas Miller, was meant to comply with two of the auditor’s recommendations.
     One recommendation concerned spending funds appropriately, saying “the Judicial Council should develop and implement controls to govern how it staff can spend judicial branch funds.”
     “These controls should include specific definitions of local expenditures, written fiscal policies and procedures as the Rules of Court require and a review process,” the recommendation continued.
     The auditor also advised the council to “create a separate advisory body, or amend a current committee’s responsibilities and composition, to review the AOC’s state operations and local assistance expenditures in detail to ensure that they are justified and prudent.”
     But judges questioned whether the resulting rule change was what the auditor actually intended.
     While Miller did not respond to questions from Courthouse News, he explained the reasoning behind shelving the proposal at Friday’s hearing.
     “Simply put, we needed to go back to the drawing board,” Miller said. “On the one hand this is unfortunate because we are committed to fulfilling the state auditor’s recommendations as quickly as possible. On the other hand, the comments helped me to recognize that we need to continue our deliberative process about any future recommendations with regards to those audits concerns.”
     Miller called the proposed rule change a “product of many, many discussions.””It was clear from the 12 thoughtful comments we received on the proposed rule that it had various deficiencies and that we needed to rethink our approach to these particular recommendations of the auditor,” Miller added.

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