Changes in Court Funding Structure Proposed

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – At an emergency meeting of the Judicial Council Thursday, California’s finance director proposed a further centralization of court funding along with immediate layoffs and local budget cuts, proposals that judges viewed with great alarm.
     “We’re getting to the point where we are going to have to say uncle,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in an interview after the meeting. “The judicial branch has been really, really good, but we’re not that good.”
     To offset a $544 million budget cut, Governor Brown’s plan will sweep the tenuous reserve funds set aside to keep courts operating from day to day, State Finance Director Ana Matosantos told the judges. Her department now expects the courts to contribute $402 out of their reserves to make up for the cut, and will direct the Judicial Council to set up a statewide emergency fund of $80 million.
     That reserve fund will be administered by the council and local trial courts will be expected to apply for money as the need arises.
     However, the judiciary has not been told where this $80 million will come from, and there was strong concern among judges Thursday that the money will ultimately come from the local courts themselves.
     “There is a profound structural change suggested in this budget. And it really changes and shapes the relationship of the courts to the council and the council to the executive branch,” said Judge David Rubin of San Diego in an interview.
     Rubin, who is both a member of the council and president of the California Judges Association, added, “The Governor and the Legislature are faced with impossible circumstances. But they have a different philosophy than the courts have had. In a statewide branch, individual courts don’t keep reserves. What I heard today was an effort to create uniformity, but these county courts are unique. The branch doesn’t lend itself to one size fits all.”
     For the local courts clinging to precious little resources for daily survival, the idea of giving up their reserves for a central pool of emergency money is staggering.
     “There is going to be some push back,” said Judge Mary Ann O’Malley of Contra Costa Superior Court in an interview. She said some courts have saved for years to build up their reserves by cutting their operations and laying off staff, only to see those reserves swept away.
     “They feel they are being penalized,” she continued. “Courts that have worked hard to get ready for reductions basically did so for naught. It’s really devastating. This really came out of nowhere.”
     Cantil-Sakauye added, “Because of the current structure, courts are responsive to the needs of their communities. This change in the funding structure is startling, harsh, immediate and shocking.”
     The chief justice said that she agrees with the principle of more equal funding for all the courts, but not in the way the Governor has outlined.
     “What this structure is going to ask is if equal access to justice has been delivered,” she said. “I know the Governor sees this as bringing parity across the branch. I have no disagreement about that, but I have a disagreement with the means of getting there.”
     “And we have 45 days to get there,” Justice Douglas Miller added.
     During the council meeting, Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento also took issue with the tight schedule imposed by the Governor’s proposal, which could lead to the court laying off an additional 140 employees. The court has already lost 193 employees since 2008.
     “The magnitude of the Governor’s proposal is so huge that I am not sure we have truly digested it yet. One thing I do know is it will be impossible for us to accomplish this mass reduction in less than a year, let alone 45 days,” she said.
     Earl noted that the court had planned to use its reserves to get it through the next three years. “We are nearing the end of the first year of our budget plan. We have imposed layoffs, reduced expenditures and held our hiring freeze and we have spent reserves in doing so. Year two of our plan is to begin on July 1 of this year and it calls for a reduction of $14 million from our budget.”
     “In pure staff costs that is 140 employees,” Earl continued. “Realizing that we could ill afford to lose 140 employees at once, our plan calls for the additional use of reserve funds as much as $8 million to offset the layoffs until the final year of our plan. However, on Monday we were advised that we would not have the reserve money to do so,” she said. “I am somewhat taken aback by the comment by Ms. Matosantos and she said it more than once and that is that this restructuring, the use of reserves, would allow courts to maintain operations. That will do anything but allow us to maintain operations.”
     At a public comment period before the meeting, Judge Steve White of Sacramento called on the council to cut back on the court’s administrative office, a focus of anger and opposition from many trial judges around the state. He said the council has long served as “the handmaiden” to the bureaucracy and the time has come for that to change.
     White pointed to the council’s recent decision to pull the plug on the Court Case Management System, a $500 million IT project run by the AOC whose total cost was projected hit $2 billion upon completion.
     “Over a half a billion dollars was put into CCMS and other millions of dollars were put into other priorities that were not the courts,” said White. “Regardless of the errant ways of the past and regardless of the mistakes that have been made by this council historically and simply being the hand maiden to the AOC, simply doing the AOC’s bidding, the time has come to stop and change that.”
     “The time has come to cut the Administrative Office of the Courts to its core essential functions, whatever those are, at least a 75%, at least freeing up $75 million to keep courts running, eliminate the regional offices and focus on the real courts,” White added. “There’s no more money coming. We must find the best way to spend and allocate the money we have.”
     No action was taken by the council Thursday, but the Chief Justice said she will put together a small group of judges and court officials by Friday to negotiate the budget.

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