Judicial Council Wants More Judges, Higher Filing Fees

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – At its meeting Friday, California’s Judicial Council voted to seek 50 new judgeships as part of a package of legislative priorities for the coming year.
     But the council’s demands would fall on deaf ears, according to the Alliance of California Judges, a 500-member reform group.
     “Any discussion of legislative priorities, however, is pointless if the members of the Legislature aren’t listening to us. And they’re not,” the group said in a statement after the council meeting.
     Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye recently told reporters that her budget blueprint asking for $1.2 billion for the courts over three years, which she unveiled to much fanfare in January, would not be used as a basis for lobbying the legislature this budget season. Cantil-Sakauye told reporters that the council “won’t be working from that document as the ultimate demand,” and suggested the blueprint be renamed.
     “We have another name for it: It’s a dead letter,” the Alliance shot back.
     The council’s Friday vote on legislative priorities also included support for legislation that would expand access to interpreters in civil cases, as well as a request that the legislature extend civil case filing fee increases.
     Temporary fee increases were enacted by the legislature in fiscal year 2012-13 and are scheduled to end on July 1, 2015. But the council’s lobbyists will be asking the legislature for an extension.
     Judge Martin Tangeman of San Luis Obispo did not vote for the proposed fee extension, saying the idea did not make sense because people who cannot afford the fees are less inclined to file cases.
     “Shifting costs to users will have an inevitable effect of inhibiting public access and use of the courts by the public,” Tangeman said. “That’s been borne out by statistics we’ve seen with lower civil case filings, certainly borne out by common sense. I don’t know how far we can carry this on or how far we should carry this on. But I think that we are dangerously close to moving into a mode of institutionalizing permanent increased fees in order to perform justice for most.”
     The other dissenting vote came from Mark Bonino, a partner with Hayes Scott Bonino Ellingson & McLay in Redwood City, Calif. The Alliance also blasted the increases.
     “As much as our branch needs the money, we should think hard about extending the increases in filing fees,” the group said. “If we’re really concerned about access to the justice system, we cannot keep the price of admission high.”
     If approved by the Legislature, the fee increases will raise the filing cost by $40 for civil cases where the dispute is more than $25,000. It also raises the filing fee for probate and family law cases by $40, and complex case fees by $450.
     “I think it’s sad that we have to as a body, vote on this type of issue, increasing fees,” said Judge Brian Back of Ventura. “There are a lot of people out there that cannot afford these fees. I would be voting for it because I think we are compelled by forces which we’ve been working against and with. I certainly look forward to when we can vote on a reduction of fees.”
     The council also approved a new formula for allocating judgeships – if they are ever funded – giving smaller courts a better shot at getting an additional judge. It multiplies a judge’s workload by a three-year average of filings, then divides that number by the time it takes a judge to hear a case.
     The result is called a full-time equivalent, representing a court’s judicial need. Currently, a court must have the need for one full-time equivalent to be eligible of a judgeship, but the council voted to lower the threshold to 0.8 to give smaller courts like those in Del Norte, Lassen, and El Dorado counties the chance to get on the waiting list.
     “At the bottom, this affects really small courts,” said Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County, who voted for the proposal. “And if you have a court of two judges, for example, losing the possibility of an additional judge has huge impacts. On a 100-judge court, deferring that additional judge has less impact. You can deal with it.”     
     Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County was the lone dissenter. “I think there are pragmatic and political problems with that issue,” he said.
     McCabe admitted that his court is unaffected by the change, but said he thought the policy unwise given that it costs roughly $1 million to fund a judge and support staff.
     “One, I think the legislature and the governor might have a problem with expending monies for a full-time position and staff for a position that is not full time,” McCabe said. “Number two, we’ve in essence had a line. People have been standing in line since 2007 because they have demonstrated full-time needs for judges. The formula’s now changed to allow somebody that doesn’t have a full-time need to get in line.”
     The Alliance seemed to agree with McCabe on the numbers. “As much as we need more judges, we can’t justify more judicial appointments when we don’t have the money to meet our current staffing needs,” the group said.
     In its statement following the council meeting, the Alliance urged the council to reform itself before demanding more money from the Legislature. The judicial branch, it said, has to restore its reputation with the other branches of government.
     “We need to commit ourselves to reforming our bureaucracy, not just relabeling it,” the judges’ group said. “We need to remake the Judicial Council, with its cumbersome apparatus of standing committees, advisory committees, subcommittees and task forces, into a representative body that takes its oversight role seriously and that truly speaks for the judges it purports to lead. Our pleas for more money will never gain traction until our branch leaders demonstrate a commitment to real reform, and back that commitment with meaningful action.”
     The Alliance has a history of pushing for reform of the Judicial Council and its bureaucracy, and has long-advocated democratizing membership of the council by allowing trial judges to vote for the judges that represent them. Council members are currently chosen by the chief justice from a pool of nominees.

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