SACRAMENTO (CN) – Head judges from all over California urged legislators on Thursday to allow them to decide how to keep courts open in the face of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed $200 million budget cut, and argued that the Legislative Analyst Office’s finding that some courts were overfunded last year is incorrect.
“We are definitely not overfunded, we are under-resourced,” said Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside County Superior Court. “We’ll do anything to keep our doors open.”
Ellsworth said her court has even gone so far as to eliminate bottled water in the courtrooms, and that judges have volunteered their pay to keep the court operational.
“In San Diego, our court definitely does not feel like we’re overfunded,” said San Diego Presiding Judge Kevin Enright. “The decision made by this sub-committee and by the legislature will have a direct affect as to how we can service the public.”
Enright added, “We recognize the difficulty the state is having, but we have a sixteen percent vacancy rate on our court staff, and manifestations of that vacancy rate have resulted in even longer lines, specifically in our civil division. We have a backlog of ten to eleven months in processing judgments, and in terms of service to the public that is fundamentally wrong.”
The Legislative Analyst’s Office has recommended several solutions to the state courts’ budget shortfall, from implementing electronic court reporting to allowing courts to privatize court guards and court interpreters. The legislative analyst also recommended reducing the amounts retained in trial court reserves.
“For example, the trial courts had about $312 million in unspent funds at the beginning of 2010-2011,” said an LAO report presented at the hearing.
In light of California’s budget woes, the LAO recommended that the legislature reduce funding to the trial courts “on a one-time basis” in 2011-2012 by $150 million, “and direct the trial courts to use their considerable reserve funds to buffer against the loss of state funding.”
The LAO has also recommended that budget cuts should be minimized for courts with the greatest financial need. On the hand, it identified thirteen trial courts that could shoulder most of the burden, including those in San Francisco, San Diego, Orange County, Santa Clara, Napa, Marin County, Santa Barbara and San Mateo.
“A year ago, I know San Francisco came within one inch of closing their courts,” said the Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles). “They may have a view as to whether they’re over-resourced.”
Testifying on behalf of the Consumer Attorneys of California, Christopher Dolan said, “I have to speak up for San Francisco. Speaking from the trenches, I must tell you court closures last year were devastating.” He added, “People were taking time off work and seeing these signs that said the court was closed and were bewildered.”
Dolan said that last year, San Francisco Superior Court’s presiding judges had told him the court only had “one week’s reserve to make payroll.”
Only weeks ago, San Francisco Superior Court Executive Officer Mike Yuen told a local TV reporter that the court may have to shut down its entire civil division if massive cuts are implemented.
At Thursday’s hearing, Dolan argued to the legislators, “If excess exists here, I don’t know of it. I enforce the laws that you make and without a court system, the laws you make become just words floating in ether.”
Assembly member Feuer added, “I think all of us recall days when we did not have courts open, and that undermined the core of who we are as a democracy.”
Near the end of the public comment period, San Bernardino Superior Judge Keith Davis, president of the California Judges Association, said, “Please take away from all the comments today this: this is an issue the branch has a process to resolve and discuss.”
He urged the legislators to “allow the branch to solve these budget issues.”