SAN FRANCISCO (CN) California’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said “everything is on the table” when a budget committee meets in closed session later this month to hash out a $350 million cut to judicial branch funds. “There is nothing sacred or precious that cannot be gored.”
Discussions within the committee, called the “trial court budget working group,” are sure to be fraught, as the grim budget situation will inevitably force courts throughout the state to lay off staff, close courtrooms and shut down projects.
San Francisco Superior Court has announced plans to issue pink-slips to 200 employees, and intends to close almost half its courtrooms by mid-July. Other courts are halting IT projects in their tracks.
Trial judges have expressed their concern that the bureaucrats in the Administrative Office of the Courts will dominate the upcoming budget deliberations, and that the trial courts will take the brunt of the cuts.
In addition, they say that a closed-door meeting, set for July 13th, represents business as usual for the administrators who often control the process of deliberation in the committees, partly through their control of information and the timing of its presentation.
“It’s always been the same,” the chief justice responded. “The AOC’s role is to get the numbers together for the judges to make decisions and make recommendations.”
Cantil-Sakauye also said in an interview that the AOC will take its “pro rata share” of the $350 million cut, and to think it will be otherwise is “alarmist speculation.”
“There is no effort at all to exempt the AOC or prevent them from taking their cut,” said Cantil-Sakauye. “Everybody has special projects and programs. This is all being looked at. The AOC is looking at cutting itself a proportionate amount.”
She said she is pushing for a collaborative process and noted that she had just ended a phone meeting with six appellate justices where she was “getting feedback on what this cut looks like for them.”
A focal point of protest from the trial courts has been the technology spending by the central administrators, in particular the hundreds of millions spent on software called the Court Case Management System. The money to pay a private contractor for developing and fixing the software has come from trial court trust funds at a time when courts are under severe duress, with staff furloughs and court closures.
“CCMS is also on the table,” said the chief justice. “I realize whether it happens or not is subject to the decision Judicial Council is going to make when they see the numbers on CCMS. Can we do it, do we have to delay it, or do we have to stop it entirely.”
San Mateo County Presiding Judge Beth Labson Freeman who was appointed in March to the budget committee said this year’s budget “is the most difficult because it stands on the shoulders of cuts the branch has received over the last two years, so it’s cumulative.”
“I think it’s a bigger challenge than we’ve ever faced before. The cuts are really drastic,” said Los Angeles Superior Court Presiding Judge Lee Edmon, also a budget committee member.
“All options are on the table,” Edmon continued, “and I see as one of our first goals trying to find any resources we can within the judicial branch to provide good financing for the courts over the next year. The chief justice has said, and I agree, that our first priority should be to keep the courthouse doors open.”
Edmon said the committee should look at any funds they can draw from to keep the courts afloat. “We ought to be looking at CCMS funds, the Trial Court Trust Fund, are there any reserves to be held over from the last year to the next.”
Edmon added, “I don’t necessarily want to shut down CCMS because there are some courts that need it. But I’m certainly willing to look at CCMS. At the same time I stand behind the chief in saying that our main priority should be keeping the courthouse doors open.”