Legislature Votes to Restore|$100 Million to California Courts

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – Chastened by the fury of court employees hurt by layoffs, court closures, and years of repeated cuts to funding for trial courts, the California Legislature voted to restore $100 million to the judicial branch’s budget.
     The money will be an ongoing addition to the budget, but it comes with a few caveats:
     It must be used specifically for keeping the trial courts running, and officials from the Administrative Office of the Courts must account for the money received both before and after it is spent.
     Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Assembly budget sub-committee, said the Administrative Office will be required to submit a report each August – before it receives the money — outlining its spending plans, and then later they, “will come back to us to show they did what they said they were going to do.”
     He added, “Whatever they’ve cut, these monies are specifically to go to augmenting or hopefully reversing all of that.”
     The unanimous vote was preceded by a lively period of public comment punctuated by bursts of cheers and applause.
     Cheryl Clark, an Alameda court worker who drew some of loudest cheers, said, “Where has all this money gone? Why do we have to close at 2:30 [p.m.]? I’m with everyone else — accountability for the AOC. But if they’re not going to be accountable, give the money to the trial courts and let us be responsible for us. We can bypass all of that.
     “The money is well needed,” Clark continued. ” And … if they’re not going to account for the money, it needs to be taken away from them and let the courts take care of it- each court equally.”
     The court workers, many of whom wore yellow t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Public Safety First, Keep LA Courts Open,” called on lawmakers to hold the central court bureaucracy accountable for the spending of the new funds.
     Paris Fox, an employee at the Alameda County Superior Court, said it disheartening for him, “as a court employee” and “servant of the people of the state of California” to tell people the court closes at 2:30 p.m., while at the same time acknowledging a new, $2.3 billion courthouse is being built nearby – a reference to a controversial courthouse construction project in Long Beach.
     “People don’t understand that,” said Fox, whose comments were greeted by loud applause from other speakers. “So I hope and pray that as the money goes from this body, the legislature, which is trusted by the people of the state, to this body in front of me, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the one word that is in my head here is accountability. And transparency.”
     The court workers’ comments were not lost on the lawmakers, who for years have been listening to allegations of misspending and waste, while local trial courts, starved for funds, have been shuttering courthouses and laying off staff.
     The judiciary is still reeling from the failed implementation of a new Court Case Management System, a project that was terminated last year after it became mired in cost overruns and other issues, and was widely criticized by trial judges and court employees.
     Assembly member Diane Harkey (R-Orange County) said the AOC’s handling of the judicial branch’s money has been “almost a constant controversy” in her five years in the Legislature.
     “I’m not here to harass anybody but what I’d like to see, seriously, is a real communication such that we get the money to the trial courts. I do think things are a little bit better than they were under the previous chief justice, that being said there’s just so much more to go. I would hope there would be some way that we could get more funding to the courts and less to the administration,” Harkey said, drawing applause from the court workers in the audience.
     She asked new AOC Director Judge Steven Jahr for a response. “I know you’re not amongst friends here,” she said.
     “I must respectfully disagree,” Jahr answered. “I think the comments that have been made throughout the audience today have been more illustrative of the problems we face in the trenches than anything I could have said.”
     He added, “It’s easy to find boogeymen. When you take away the amount of money that had to be taken away on account of the extraordinary fiscal crisis we had you’re going to expect breakdown. It’s my commitment to you to see that that is done properly, efficiently and transparently.”
     Jones-Sawyer added his own frustrations about the bureaucracy. “I came from the City of Los Angeles. I was director of real estate. I used to have to deal with a group called the AOC in dealing with commercial property. It was probably one of the worst experiences I ever had with another governmental entity in my life.”
     He went on to recall his experience trying to rent space in the Long Beach courthouse building, charaterizing it as, “painful, to say the least.”
     “What I can tell you now, as someone who has been highly critical of the AOC, is that Judge Jahr has been very cooperative, open and I think he is the first link at us turning this ship around for the courts, especially when it comes to accountability,” he said.
     “Everyone on both sides of the aisle firmly believes that the court needs more money,” Jones-Sawyer added. “We’d like for this $100 million to go toward beginning to restore self-help services, extend business hours, begin the process of reducing delays and adjudicating cases and most important, reopen closed facilities or suspend anticipated closures.”
     The audience again erupted into cheers.
     With that, the committee chairman turned to Jahr, saying, “You’re kind of on probation now yourself, you and the court system. This is your opportunity to show the legislature and the governor that you can spend those dollars wisely. Once there is some greater transparency and accountability not only will this body look to giving you more money in the future, we will find more because there’s a comfort level to make sure the money gets down to the trial courts.”
     In addition to the increased funding, the committee voted on Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to increase the amount of money courts can carry in reserve. His original plan was to sweep more of the courts’ fund balances, leaving them with only one percent reserves.
     The proposal approved by the committee would increase the amount of funds a trial court can carryover from one fiscal year to the next to 12 percent.
     In the Senate, meanwhile, a budget sub-committee chaired by Senator Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) also voted for the $100 million restoration and the 12 percent carryover.
     “This has been a very big concern of the entire legislature in the last year, how we adequately fund the third branch of government, recognizing that justice delayed erodes competence in democracy,” Hancock said.
     The measures passed despite warnings from the Department of Finance that revenue projections were still tenuous.
     But Hancock also had some sharp words for the AOC on the new Long Beach courthouse, scheduled to open this year. The Senate sub-committee approved $53.6 million for the first “service payment,” to be taken out the judiciary’s construction budget. These payments are estimated to cost $2.3 billion over the life of the 35-year contract.
     As many have argued that private financiers have made money off the state on a one-sided contract, the committee’s approval came with more restrictions on future public-private partnerships.
     “That was a fiasco. That was done at the end of the last administration but its going to cost the people of California a lot of money,” Hancock said. “We don’t want to see this happen again, so we need rules. I’m sorry, we need to be more careful with our money and we need to do it right.”
     The Assembly committee also voted 3-2 to approve the first payment, but not before Judge Steve White of Sacramento Superior Court told committee members that they should not approve any payments without first looking at the state’s liability.
     “Were this matter to be audited or were there to be an analysis of the purported business plan of this courthouse you would find the state got pantsed and the private players got rich,” Judge White said. “I strongly suggest that this body look at whether the state has any liability whatsoever.”
     He added, “It would be a mistake and a misuse of state monies to pay for this without getting the parties back to the table. Because of this project some four courthouse construction projects are on ice and some 11 others are not even in line anymore.”

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