(CN) - A group of judges and court clerks picked to evaluate the funding formula for California's 58 trial courts seemed ready Wednesday to endorse a new model that would give local courts more control over their finances.
Most of the two-day final meeting for the work group on funding was closed to the public. But, during a two-hour window for public viewing, discussion centered on a funding proposal developed by Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento and a committee of presiding judges and court officials.
Over the last five months, the work group has been meeting to evaluate the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act, a 1997 law that established a system for statewide funding of trial courts. The ultimate goal of the legislation was to stabilize funding for the courts, but over the years, judges have complained of inequity, with some courts ending up severely underfunded and others getting more.
"Every program in government I've ever met -- no one feels they are overfunded," joked Phillip Isenberg, former legislator and co-chair of the working group.
Trial court funds have been historically based on county levels from the mid-1990s, with baseline augmentations from the Resource Assessment Study that is used to determine severity of financial need. Perhaps the biggest complaint about the Resource Assessment Study model is that allocates money based on workloads that haven't been adjusted since 2005, when it was approved by the Judicial Council.
Earl told the working group that when she became chair of the Judicial Council's presiding judges advisory group, she made it a priority to evaluate the current funding model.
"The charge was to develop a funding model that would result in a more equitable distribution of trial court funding among each of the 58 trial courts," Earl said. "Where we've landed is really on a trial court budget process that includes budget development and budget allocation. We're talking about trying to identify all of the work trial courts have and the funding needed to support getting that work done. The RAS does not capture all of the work of the trial courts."
The new model considers the complexity of case filings in all the courts and uses U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics on local government employee wages per county. It also accounts for "unique factors" for each county, such as a high proportion of certain case types.
She said perhaps the most robust discussions on the new model would be when to roll it out to the courts. "We ultimately decided the model needs to be phased in over time," Earl said.
If the Judicial Council approves the plan, it will start being applied to courts in fiscal year 13-14, but only ten percent of the courts' funding will be allocated under the new plan, with the remaining 90 percent coming from the old model. The percentages are expected to rise incrementally over five years, ending with a 50-50 ratio in 2018.
Earl admitted that her own court would likely lose funding, but other historically underfunded courts would benefit.
Earl was joined in her presentation by Presiding Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County and Santa Clara County's head clerk David Yamasaki, who sits on both the funding allocation committee led by Earl and the working group led by Isenberg and Justice Harry Hull.
McCabe pushed for the model as a way of giving the courts more autonomy over resources and holding them accountable for mismanagement.
"Some courts are going to have better managers than others. Some are going to have judges that can process the exact same case in one county much more efficiently and have equal access to justice as another county," said McCabe. "We recognize those differences and we allow the local autonomy."
"But we have a limit on this and then at the same times allow them to do their jobs. These are the resources, these are what they were given," he added. "For judges we have elections. That's the check on us. For CEOs, well they're the employee of the judges, so if they're not doing their job they'll be fired."
Earl's committee is continuing to work out the plan's kinks as it meets with regional groups of judges throughout this month, before bringing it to the Judicial Council in April. "It's not a perfect model," she said. "We also recognize that it will need to be adjusted over time."
The working group is expected to have a report to Governor Brown and the Judicial Council in April, and it is likely they'll support the model as a source of equitable funding and a way of achieving "access to justice," a theme discussed widely throughout the group's series of meetings. While all agreed that access to justice was one of the main goals of the act, the group had great difficulty pinning down meaning of the phrase.
Before the working group went into closed session, Yamasaki said the group's report will refer to access to justice with a variety of meanings.
"It's difficult to nail down," he said. "There's not a single answer."