SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Under strict limits for moving money within the judiciary’s budget, California’s Judicial Council had little wiggle room to offset the $385 million in new cuts doled out to trial courts at its recent meeting.
“There are inequities in the proposals, yes, but it is inequitable to reduce the trial court budgets for the current year and the past years, that’s the reality,” said council member David Rosenberg, presiding judge of Yolo County. “Our discretion was very limited and very narrow.”
This week, the council’s staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts, will meet with the Department of Finance to negotiate its recent decision stripping the state’s 58 trial courts of all but 1 percent of their fund balances, about $550 million, and sweeping it into a statewide pot.
Rosenberg said the AOC, presiding judges and court officials will make the case for allowing the courts to hold back some money to meet certain financial obligations.
“We want to get down in the weeds with them in a real sense and say here’s what we need fund balances for, here’s what we need to pay for and here’s what will happen if we don’t,” he said.
In his presentation to the council, AOC Finance Director Zlatko Theodorovic said the Department of Finance had been very clear that it would not budge on the fund balances issue, though trial courts had already committed their fund balances to meet expenses.
“They were steadfast in their position that fund balances as articulated by Director Ana Matosantos, that it is the entirety without regard for what it was previously designated for,” Theodorovic said. “We have to actively engage the Department of Finance and the Legislature on redefining the statute that they adopted regarding fund balance policy.”
A meeting is also scheduled with the Department of Finance regarding an error in the judiciary’s budget that may result in the council having authority over an extra $29 million.
“There was an error on the part of the Department of Finance and the Legislature,” Theodorovic said. “Authority to spend money was moved from the trial court appropriation to the Judicial Council and AOC budget because that was where it had been historically spent. In their effort to provide greater transparency, they wanted to show where the funding was actually being spent out of, so they moved $29 million of authority from one item of the budget into another item of the budget — except they didn’t reduce the authority in the trial court appropriation. So we had informed the Department of Finance of that issue, but in terms of looking at every option, we’re proposing to use that authority fully.”
During a public comment period, Los Angeles attorney David Farrar called on the council to start aggressively collecting fees, fines and penalties to raise money for the courts, saying it is an “embarrassment” that the courts are sitting on $7.5 billion in court-ordered debt that could be put toward keeping the courts open.
“If the courts are so broke, why are they owed so much money?” he asked. “There was considerable speculation to the effect that I guess people who don’t pay just don’t have the money. But the simple fact is, there’s absolutely no evidence to support that speculation. For all we know, all the people that don’t pay are drug dealers, driving Cadillac Escalades who simply have no respect for the law. And that could be why they don’t pay.”
“The current system is broken,” Farrar added. “And right now the $7.5 billion in court-ordered debt is just sitting there as a major embarrassment to all of us. And if even 10 percent of the $7.5 billion were collected, we would all be better off.”