California Legislature Blindsides Court Bureaucracy With Huge Budget Cut

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – In a move that blindsided the judicial branch, California’s Legislature dealt a devastating cut to the court budget on Wednesday, lopping another $150 million from a budget that already had been cut by $200 million. The fiscal body blows are included in the 2011 budget bill that passed the state Senate by 23-15 and the Assembly by 51-26.

     While the cuts may have surprised the judiciary’s top bureaucrats in the Administrative Office of the Courts, they came as no surprise to trial judges.
     Judge Maryanne Gilliard of Sacramento Superior Court said the Legislature watched and took note as judicial branch bureaucrats continued to spend money on expensive technology projects such as its Court Case Management System, even after the state auditor found the project in danger of failure.
     “This cut appears to reflect the Legislature’s belief that our branch must have extra funds available since we continue to expend great resources on the maligned and troubled CCMS project,” Gilliard said. “When our branch leaders publicly advocate for CCMS and continue to fund CCMS notwithstanding the scathing audit released in February, what is the Legislature to think? Our leaders need to come to terms with the reality that the Legislature controls the pursestrings.”
     Gilliard noted the AOC’s practice of paying the entire employee retirement contribution for its top executive staff and the pay raises many AOC employees received last year.
     “Publicly challenging the Legislature’s authority and duty to oversee the expenditure of public dollars has not been a wise or prudent course,” she said. “Nor has it gone unnoticed that during this fiscal crisis the judicial branch has handed out pay raises and spiked the pension benefits of those earning over $100,000. Under these circumstances, this cut should not have been a surprise.”
     The Alliance of California Judges, which has led the criticism of the AOC and its spending practices, called for the AOC to absorb its share of the cuts. “So far, the AOC has only proposed an $8.0 million reduction to the general revenue portion ($99.0 million) of its own budget,” according to a statement by the alliance.
     All available money from judicial branch funds for court modernization, and improvement should “be diverted to trial court operations,” the alliance urged.
     Alliance leaders expressed concern over the effects of the cuts on local courts, as the Legislative Analyst’s Office had “previously projected that this additional cut will close our trial courts two days per month in the next fiscal year.”
     “We hope that the outcome of this reduction is less drastic than predicted, but our trial courts are once again suffering a serious and unsustainable loss of services to the public,” they added.
     Before the vote, Sen. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) expressed his dismay about the outlook. “I’m not happy with the budget we’re about to pass,” Vargas said. “We do violence to the courts when we do these cuts.”
     A judicial source said Wednesday that the AOC “was not informed until late yesterday” about the additional planned reductions. AOC lobbyist Curtis Child did not return a call for comment.
     “This budget proposal is devastating and crippling to the judicial branch and to the public it serves,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement issued Wednesday morning before the vote. “With these cuts courts cannot provide these fundamental services or protect the rights of Californians. By marginalizing the courts, California strikes a blow against justice. Courts are not a luxury. They are at the heart of our democracy. These cuts threaten access to justice for all.”
     Cantil-Sakauye is expected to address the cuts in her State of the Judiciary speech set for June 30.

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