Cut Plans Called ‘Insulting’ to Local Courts

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – An advance copy of a report prepared by California’s Administrative Office of the Courts revealed the financial decisions likely to be made by the branch’s top budget committee in a closed meeting Wednesday. The report promulgates budget recommendations from the AOC, primarily for a 15.2 percent across-the-board cut for courts and the bureaucrats alike, a proposal one judge called “insulting to the trial courts.”

     The staff agency whose role, as the Chief Justice recently put it, is “to get the numbers together,” sent out the recommendations late Sunday night, mere days before the council’s budget committee is scheduled to meet and discuss how to apportion a $350 million budget reduction. An attached table shows a combined Judicial Council and AOC net budget reduction of $13 million while the trial courts lose a net amount of $177 million. However, both entities would take a 15.2 percent overall hit, along with the California Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeal.
     “It’s insulting to the trial courts,” said Judge Maryanne Gilliard of Sacramento Superior Court. “If you believe keeping trial courts open is your number one priority you do not give across-the-board cuts.” Gilliard remarked that the recommended 15.2 percent branch-wide cut was an arrogant move on the part of the AOC, as it suggests that the San Francisco-based bureaucracy is somehow equivalent to the trial courts that administer justice throughout the state on a daily basis.
      “Equating central planners in San Francisco with trial courts dispensing justice reflects misplaced priorities,”she said, adding that adoption of the 15.2 percent comprehensive cut only undermines the oft-repeated maxim that keeping trial courts open is the judicial council’s top priority. “The real question our branch leaders must ask is this: Is this AOC/JC program or project more important than an open court room? If the answer is ‘no’ then the program or project must be cut in favor of open court rooms for the public we serve,” Gilliard said.
     The AOC’s report also highlights various “funding transfers,” taken from judicial branch funds to keep the courts afloat. According to the figures provided by the bureaucracy, the AOC proposes a $10 million transfer from “planned expenditures” for a controversial $1.9 billion IT project called the Court Case Management System. This year’s proposed state budget for the judicial branch shows a $51 million increase for statewide administrative and technology infrastructure, from which money for CCMS is drawn, up from $96 million in fiscal year 2010-2011 to $147 million this year. No other budget items saw such an increase.
      The decision to approve the recommendation ultimately rests with the 30-member budget committee, half of which are trial court presiding judges. The membership roster includes Presiding Judge Kevin Enright of San Diego County, Presiding Judge Tom Borris of Orange County, Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside County, Presiding Judge Douglas Elwell of San Bernardino County, Presiding Judge Gary Nadler of Sonoma County and Presiding Judge Beth Labson Freeman of San Mateo County. Presiding Judge Lee Edmon of Los Angeles County is also on the committee, and in an interview last week said, “Our main priority should be keeping the courthouse doors open.”

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