SACRAMENTO (CN) – In a major victory for the state’s reform-minded trial judges, the California Legislature has stripped the Judicial Council of its ability to spend money on projects like a recently failed court IT system without legislative approval, and has ensured that money appropriated for the trial courts is spent on keeping the courts running.
The provisions enacted in a budget trailer bill Wednesday is a triumph for sponsors of AB 1208, a fiscal bill intended to keep the judiciary’s central bureaucracy, the Administrative Office of the Courts, from siphoning funds for special projects from the cash-strapped trial courts.
“The plan was to make 1208 law through whatever channels we could. There are many ways around the same bush,” said the bill’s author, Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon (D-Industry) in an interview late Wednesday. “This allowed for the policy to be put in place without anybody crowing about it one way or the other. 1208 is done. It’s been enacted without the Calderon name on it.”
He added, “The issue has attracted the attention of the Legislature and it has acted. There’s an interest in the Legislature in making sure that its appropriations are being spent accordingly. I took on this issue because I thought it was the right thing to do. I also understood that it was a big task. But then again, anything worth doing is never easy to do. I also knew I had a fighting chance because the AOC would do most of the work for me,” he said.
The budget trailer bill makes explicit the Legislature’s intention to keep the judiciary’s costly and much-maligned computer project, the Court Case Management System, from being revived.
“The bill would prohibit the Judicial Council from expending funds on the Court Case Management System without consent from the Legislature, except as specified. The bill would prohibit construing any provision of law as authorizing the Judicial Council to redirect funds for any purpose other than allocation to trial courts or as otherwise appropriated,” the bill’s language states.
The budget bill also changes the government statute to prohibit raids on the Trial Court Trust Fund, money that many judges have said is only intended to keep the courts operating, for other statewide projects.
“Nothing in this section or any other provision of law shall be construed to authorize the Judicial Council to redirect funds from the Trial Court Trust Fund for any purpose other than for allocation to trial courts or as otherwise specifically appropriated by statute,” it says.
“The Judicial Council and the AOC are prohibited from taking any money from the TCTF for any statewide or general expenditure, if it would otherwise reduce the allocation of funds to any courts, without the express authorization of the courts or Legislature,” said a statement from the Alliance of California Judges.
“The Legislature has agreed with the Alliance that all Trial Court Trust Funds not legislatively authorized for use by the AOC should be allocated to the trial courts, and not held in reserve, or disposed of at the discretion of the Judicial Council without trial court authorization.”
Judge David Lampe of Kern County, an Alliance Director, said in an interview, “The actual budget numbers and reductions we face are disastrous. In the face of that, the Legislature has essentially built into law that the trial courts have to get the money that the Legislature appropriates for trial court operations.”
He said the reforms proposed by the Alliance-sponsored AB 1208 were enacted in basic principle through the enacted trailer bill language. “Whether it’s 1208 or through a different mechanism, it reaches the same principle. In practical terms they have put those measures into play,” Lampe said.
The budget trailer bill also provides some relief to the trial courts from cuts imposed by this year’s budget, by cutting $15 million from the AOC’s budget and redirecting that money to the courts. This leaves the courts with $285 million in cuts this year, rather than the expected $300 million outlined Governor Jerry Brown’s May revised budget.
Calderon said a recent, highly-critical report from the Strategic Evaluation Committee put together by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye played a major role in convincing lawmakers to change trial court funding statutes to reflect the reforms of AB 1208. The voluminous report took on the much criticized bureaucracy’s spending, hiring and mismanagement.
“It was the pivotal event,” said Calderon. “Up until their report, insiders understood what was going on, but to the greater body it’s always like a black hole out there in terms of trying to disseminate information. But when the Chief Justice’s hand picked committee validated the complaints and criticisms that were being made about the AOC, I think that was pretty much definite and incapable of the spin.”
“That was the final evidence that was needed to put the issue in perspective,” he said. “It’s going to give reformers more leverage to bring about reforms. It may take a while, but the AOC can’t hide anymore. They can’t spin, they can’t ignore and they can’t make up their own facts.”