SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s chief justice will lead a team to lobby the Legislature to overturn a budget proposal from Governor Jerry Brown that would centralize financial control of the courts and undermine local court independence.
On Thursday, State Finance Director Ana Matosantos told the Judicial Council that the Governor expects individual trial courts to use their meager reserves to backfill $402 million of the $544 million funding reduction for this year. Matosantos also proposed an $80 million reserve fund for all the courts, with the money coming in all likelihood from the already cash-poor courts.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the small group of trial judges, justices and one court executive should have the flexibility to be at the Capitol at all hours.
The members are Justice Marvin Baxter of the Supreme Court, Judge Kenneth So of San Diego, Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County, Presiding Justice William McGuiness of the First Appellate District, retired Judge Terry Friedman of Los Angeles, Judge David Rubin of San Diego, also president of the California Judges Association, and Los Angeles Court Executive Officer Alan Carlson.
They will assist the lobbyist for the Judicial Council and the administrative office of the courts, Curt Child, who will work with the interim director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, Jody Patel. They will all work under the direction of the chief justice.
The selection of Friedman from Los Angeles stands out because Friedman was a stalwart defender of an ambitious IT project that cost a half-billion dollars before the plug was pulled on the project last month. Friedman appeared in a video made by the California Court News, a department of the court administrative office, extolling the benefits of the IT project while the Los Angeles court was fighting against it, refusing to adopt the Court Case Management System software except in one small claims court.
Friedman is the only judge on the lobbying committee from Los Angeles, which sends by far the biggest contingent of legislators to the state Capitol. However, he is also a former legislator, and brings a knowledge of the institution.
The group has only 45 days to make headway with the Legislature, as lawmakers are expected to pass a budget by June 15 and the fiscal year begins July 1. Monday’s unveiling of the Governor’s revised budget has thrown the courts into a panic, and at yesterday’s council meeting, many judges said their courts would be unable to stay open if they are forced to use their already-committed fund balances to offset the Governor’s cut.
“There is a vast, misunderstanding of the trial court fund balances, what they call reserves. It’s not like money sitting in a savings account that we can just tap into and use,” said Judge Rosenberg who is on the committee and also heads the presiding judges committee that advises the governing Judicial Council.
“What’s happening here is a huge shift in philosophy, being imposed by the Governor’s office,” he said. “The Department of Finance wants the courts to spend the fund balances, it wants the courts to use them, and it’s creating a system where the courts will be forced to use them. That shows a lack of understanding of how courts operate.”
For example, Rosenberg said courts use the fund balances to pay commissioners, whose salaries are reimbursed by the federal government. If they are unable to pay commissioners because that money is being redirected elsewhere, certain court departments will be forced to close.
A bill sponsored by the reformist Alliance of California Judges, AB 1208, currently awaits assignment to a committee in the state Senate. The governor’s proposal runs counter to its purpose, which is to ensure that local trial courts receive money from the Legislature directly and have more autonomy over their budgets. “The Department of Finance’s position is anathema to 1208. AB 1208 is about giving autonomy to trial courts. The Department of Finance’s position is we’re going to make you into another state department,” Rosenberg said.
For some judges, turning the judiciary into just another state-run program undermines the idea of the judicial branch as a constitutionally separate entity. “We are a branch, not a department or a program,” said Judge David Rubin in an interview Thursday, who added that the budget plan is “tinkering with democracy.”
“Even if you wanted to move in the direction of more state control, you don’t do it over night,” Rosenberg said. “I’m going to communicate the fact that we’re a third branch of government and we should be given some deference in how we operate, just like the Legislature is given deference.”