Legislature Backs Reviving Trial Court Reserve Funds

     (CN) – The California legislature is quickly moving to overturn a law that’s been the bane of presiding judges throughout the state since it was enacted four years ago. Pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown during the state’s long-running fiscal crisis, the contentious statute had eliminated the rainy-day funds built up by local trial courts.
     Those reserve funds were swept away by the Brown administration in 2013. With that money, the governor created a statewide pot from which courts could draw in an emergency, but prohibited individual courts from saving more than one percent of their unspent dollars each year.
     The new bill now moving through the Assembly, AB 2458, would overturn that 2013 law and return to the previous status quo, allowing trial courts to keep a rainy-day fund for expenses over and above the day-to-day operation of the court, such as technology projects and emergencies.
     The reserve funds also provide a cushion when the court budget takes a hit in an economic crisis.
     The bill’s author, Assembly Member Jay Obernolte, a Republican from San Bernardino County, said he watched his local court struggle to keep courthouses open in his four years as mayor of Big Bear Lake.
     “My first official act as mayor was to take a phone call from the presiding judge of the San Bernardino County court informing me that the courthouse in Big Bear Lake was to be closed. Barstow, Needles and Twin Peaks were also being closed,” he said in an interview. “Through the ensuing years I saw firsthand the impact that a lack of access to justice could have. That’s given me a deeper appreciation for what our courts do,” he said.
     Obernolte said he asked Presiding Judge Marsha Slough, now a Fourth Appellate District Justice, what he could do to help. “One of the things she brought up was the reserve cap.”
     The idea of restoring some financial autonomy to the courts was appealing, said the legislator.
     “I’m a big proponent of local control in most things,” Obernolte said. “I believe in the fact that a lot of the decisions on what a community needs are best when they’re made closest to the community they’re affecting. The courts are no different.”
     Judge David Lampe of Kern County supports the bill with reservations. “It’s a good thing for the trial courts,” he said.
     “We’re state courts but we’re not statewide. We’re county based. So part of the reason to carry over the budget is that we’re kind of a unique entity,” he said. “Unlike the DMV or other organizations that budget for the state, we budget on a local basis. It was part of the whole idea that there had to be a balance between local trial court management and statewide uniformity.”
     Lampe is one of the directors of the Alliance of California Judges, a reform group that has been critical of decisions by the former Administrative Office of the Courts, now called the “staff” of the Judicial Council, that starved local trial courts in favor of misbegotten technology projects and staff perquisites.
     In this case, Lampe said the Alliance supports the bill, though it opposes an amendment to the bill that reads: “The Judicial Council may authorize a trial court to carry unexpended funds over from one fiscal year to the next.”
     An Obernolte staffer said the bill was amended to bring the language in line with what the law was originally, before Brown’s one-percent cap. A Judicial Council lobbyist added, “The amended version of the bill currently in print returns the statute to how it was prior to the cap being imposed.”
     Lampe said the Alliance would prefer that the bill go further, with language ensuring local control over court finances.
     “We want the trial courts to be restored to their ability to roll over unexpended funds in their budget and accumulate a reserve,” he said.
     But, he added, there has been an ongoing concern, based on long experience, that the central administrators might try to manipulate or take away those funds. “There was always a concern of the trial courts if they maintained a reserve, because it was unclear what the Judicial Council would do, that their reserves might get swept.”
     Lampe pointed to the original law on trial court funding from 1997, encouraging the Judicial Council to adopt a “Trial Courts Bill of Financial Management Rights.”
     “The Judicial Council never did that,” Lampe said. “We want the trial court bill of rights adopted.”
     So far, AB 2458 has sailed through the Assembly without opposition. It is scheduled to be taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee. So far, Obernolte said, he hasn’t gotten any pushback from Brown’s office.
     “It was the administration that changed the system to the way it is now,” he said. “I’m hopeful that was a reaction to the budgetary situation that existed years ago and perhaps the situation now does not require an action like that.”
     H.D. Palmer, a spokesperson for Gov. Brown, said the Governor’s Department of Finance hasn’t yet analyzed the bill, so it hasn’t taken a position.
     Presiding Judge Gary Paden of Tulare County, acting president of the California Judges Association, said his group hasn’t taken an official position yet, but as a presiding judge, he is anxious to see the one-percent cap repealed.
     “It makes it hard to budget and financially plan for the upcoming year when we have those limitations,” he said. “If you talk to every presiding judge in the 58 counties they would all feel the same way.”

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