Courts’ Improvement Fund Broke;|Cuts Coming, Judicial Council Says

     (CN) – With a crucial judiciary coffer running at a deficit, California’s Judicial Council met Friday to deliver a painful blow of funding cuts to trial court security, technology, court-appointed counsel for juveniles and complex civil litigation.
     The Improvement and Modernization Fund, for years a source of funding for court technology projects, interpreters, court security, judicial education, subscriptions to publications, jury management, self-help centers and a host of other projects and programs, is $11 million in the hole.
     “There is no money in the IMF,” Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento gravely told the council. “Any action you do today needs to be based on there’s no money in the IMF. This fund runs at a deficit. It has a structural imbalance and we need to act now or we’ll be forced off the cliff that is looming. The cliff is here and we are standing at the edge of it.”
     Earl chairs the council’s trial court budget advisory committee, and is co-chair of its revenue and expenditure subcommittee.
     On Friday, Earl’s committee recommended that the council approve about $10.8 million in cuts, which will eliminate funding for nine programs, including publication subscriptions, trial court security grants, alternative dispute resolution centers and the complex civil litigation program, which funds complex civil litigation staff in the superior courts of Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles, Orange, San Francisco, and Santa Clara County.
     The elimination of complex civil litigation funding from the IMF will save $4 million, the committee estimated. Future funding will be based on workload need.
     The recommendations were a last-ditch effort to save the fund from insolvency, but the notion of de-funding programs like trial court security and complex civil litigation did not sit well with many council members.
     Attorney Debra Pole said she spent Thursday dealing with a deluge of phone calls and emails from complex civil litigation attorneys who asked that the issue be tabled for further study.
     “I cannot repeat in this open forum some of the statements that I got regarding these recommendations from people who do this every day,” she said. “People feel very, very, very strongly about this issue,” Pole said.
     Judge Emily Elias, a judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court’s complex civil litigation department said, “I got off an airplane yesterday morning and a lawyer said to me, ‘We hear that you are eliminating complex and why are you all doing that?’ “
     Judge Brian McCabe of Merced said he wasn’t pleased with slashing of $1.2 million from security. He said extra security funding was crucial, since he and 150 others recently witnessed the fatal shooting in his courtroom of a man who “assaulted the court with two 10-inch blades.”
     “In essence, we are choosing between whether we cut off our left hand or right hand, but either choice is not going to be pleasant and it is going to hurt,” McCabe said.
     He added: “Notwithstanding, taking that local hat off and putting the statewide one on, I get it. I get that we have a deficit and we have to address it. I get that there is going to be some painful decisions here and that this is meant as a temporary stop-gap until we can figure out some either funding solutions or better mechanisms.”
     The council also voted to cut five courts loose from IMF support to maintain remnants of the now-defunct software project called the Court Case Management System, at about $7 million a year. San Diego, Orange County, Ventura County and Sacramento signed on early to the project, which was intended to unite the state’s 58 trial courts under one case-tracking software system.
     The project was terminated in 2012 amidst damning criticism from legislators, trial judges, court employees and union leaders as a costly and technologically unwieldy boondoggle. The courts that are currently using V3, the latest version of the system that the Legislature allowed the Judicial Council to support with the IMF, are all looking to replace their systems with software from vendors like Tyler Technologies and Thomson Reuters.
     The plan is to incrementally wean the courts off the funding over four years, but the question remains as to how these courts will pay for their new systems.
     Ventura County is particularly concerned, Second Appellate District Court Judge Judith Ashmann-Gerst told the council. Ashmann-Gerst, the council’s liaison to the Ventura court, said the court is interested in a deal with Tyler, but has no way to pay for it.
     “The court feels it stuck its neck out when they signed up for V3 and now they need $3.5 million to go on to Tyler,” she said.
     Ventura Presiding Judge Brian Back said the court has been in talks with Tyler for at least six months, but “we have no funds.”
     The council unanimously voted to withdraw funding for V3 in 2016 and its tech committee will begin looking for alternate funding sources for the next three years.
     Council members also voted to change the method of allocating funding for court-appointed attorneys for juveniles to be based on caseloads, but will revisit the issue next year.

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