‘Day of Reckoning’ for California Courts

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – In what he termed a “day of reckoning” for California, Gov. Jerry Brown slashed the state’s court budget by more than a half-billion dollars on Monday. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye reacted, “The proposed cuts to the judicial branch are both devastating and disheartening.”
     An immediate target for the ax was the central administrative office for the California courts which has been criticized as wasteful, bloated and arrogant.
     “The Administrative Office of the Courts must immediately slash its own budget to free up any available monies for the trial courts,” Sacramento trial judge Steve White said.
     Brown’s May revised budget cuts a total of $544 million from the state court budget but also comes on top of huge, cumulative cuts over the last two years.
     The governor calls for the courts to use $300 million of their reserves instead of getting money from the state. The rest of the $544 million will be offset by taking $240 million out of the courts’ construction fund and $4 million will be gained by increasing court employees’ retirement contributions.
     In addressing reporters Monday, Brown indicated that funding for the courts is not the state’s top priority.
     “The money is not in a piggy bank,” said Brown. “It comes from the people. Just like everybody else, nothing in government is an absolute, unconditioned good. Every good is relative to all the other goods, in the context of what’s available.”
     “As the courts make their arguments,” he added, “the Legislature will listen and weigh that against childcare, against CalWORKs, against a lot of other things. We’ve got three branches of government and they’re all going to have some of their branches trimmed.”
     California Department of Finance Director Ana Matosantos said Monday that a fundamental reorganization of the court structure carried out under former chief justice Ron George had exacerbated the financial difficulty for the courts.
     “Before, we used to have local funding for the courts,” Matosantos said. “The state has now transitioned to a state-funded court system. The May revision is asking should the state be making reductions to child care, to CalWORKs? It basically changes the structure and uses those available reserves to avoid cuts to other areas.”
     “The state will direct the Judicial Council to offset the allocation that the courts would otherwise receive with the available reserves,” she said with authority.
     “The general fund share for the courts has gone down about 20 percent,” Matosantos added. “What’s happened in the past is the Legislature, the governor and the Judicial Council have looked at other funds to backfill those reductions,” she said.
     “Last year, trial courts had roughly $562 million in available reserves,” Matosantos explained. “The May revision says $300 million in reserves will be used to offset the allocation that the state would otherwise be providing for the courts. $240 million in additional savings come from delaying and suspending projects that were going to be moving forward next year.”
     After the budget was unveiled, some trial judges said the courts’ reserves should not be used as the solution to the judiciary’s budget crisis, calling instead for severe cuts to the central bureaucracy of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
     In the last nine years, the AOC lost a half-billion dollars on an IT project called the Court Case Management System, that was recently shut down. The project was widely criticized for its lack of cost controls.
     “What the AOC needs to do is cut its staff and spending. That is what the really significant cut has to be,” Judge Susan Lopez-Giss in Los Angeles said. “It’s been clear for a while that the Legislature wasn’t going to be giving us money, not because they don’t recognize the courts but because the AOC has misspent so much of the money.”
     Lopez-Giss said Los Angeles still plans to cut 300 jobs in June, and its $27 million in reserves will not even keep the court open for a month.
     In Sacramento, Judge White said the AOC should cut its own budget before looking to the courts’ reserves, and was not surprised by the staggering cuts to the judiciary in the May revised budget.
     “There’s no question that the judicial branch performs a critical function, and it has to continue to function. At the same time, when budget straits are as desperate as they are overall, the branch itself has to make all conceivable cuts and reductions in non court functions that it can in order to keep the courts open,” White said.
     White added that the courts’ reserves were not meant to backfill funding reductions from the state, but are intended to keep courts going.
     “The reserves are what the courts are living on day to day right now,” he said. “When I was presiding judge, we set aside about $14 million in reserves that we were spending every single day to keep our courthouse open. It is part of the budget that supports the court. If the AOC were to reach into the reserves rather than shutting down its own marginal operations and reducing its own staffing, it would be doing a great disservice to the courts of California. Certainly the courts would fight any effort to take those funds.”     
     The chief justice said the burden of the cuts will fall heaviest on people trying to use court services. “They will seriously compromise the public’s access to their courts and our ability to provide equal access to justice throughout the state,” Cantil-Sakauye said. She has called for an emergency Judicial Council meeting Thursday to deliberate over how to best implement them.
     The Alliance of California Judges, a reform group calling for legislation to increase local court funding issued a statement Monday saying: “Quite frankly, the day of reckoning has come to the judiciary. Years of mismanagement and misplaced priorities by the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts have caused not only a budget crisis, but a crisis in confidence.”
     The Alliance is sponsoring a bill, AB 1208, that is intended to give a hundred percent of the money allocated for the courts by the Legislature, directly to the courts. It currently goes to the Judicial Council, which decides how the money is distributed among the courts.
     “The money allocated to the courts should be spent on the courts,” Lopez-Giss in Los Angeles said. “Unfortunately I think AB 1208 was justified before the May revise, when we had furloughs, when they said there would be cuts initially to the courts.”
     White said: “There isn’t a single court in California that isn’t suffering mightily. Courts have made cuts right and left. The AOC has not, and simply has to now.”

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