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Mono County Courts|Get $49,000 Bailout

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - At its meeting Tuesday, California's Judicial Council weighed the risk of court closures and furloughs in Mono County Superior Court and its precedent against bailouts for struggling courts, ultimately voting 17-2 to give Mono County $49,000.

The council also swore in new members and heard an update on Gov. Jerry Brown's amnesty program for unpaid traffic tickets.

Discussion of Mono County's funding request centered around Brown's decision three years ago to sweep individual trial courts' reserve pots in excess of 1 percent into a statewide fund to be managed by the Judicial Council. That reserve consists of 2 percent of the total amount of money California sends to the trial courts in a given year.

Judges and court clerks recoiled at the idea of having their carefully built reserves being stripped away, but the measure passed as part of the 2012-13 budget package over their objections.

"When the reserves were taken away from us that took away what we had planned and provided for," Mono County court clerk Hector Gonzalez told the council by phone. "It puts us in a difficult situation now, trying to apply a standard that we weren't aware of at the point that we were operating with a reserve."

In 2012, the council approved criteria for courts to request money from the reserve fund, namely that they be experiencing "an unavoidable funding shortfall, unanticipated expense, or unforeseen emergency."

Mono County's problem stems from a longtime retiring employee's lump-sum vacation and sick time cash-out in March 2015, a cash advance amounting to $49,000.

With an expected negative balance of $51,000 this year, the high Sierra court asked the council earlier this month for emergency funds to repay the $49,000 rather than risk closing the doors.

Council member Judge David Buckley of Los Angeles said he preferred giving the court $33,000 - the amount Mono County contributed this budget year to the emergency fund.

He said giving them the full $49,000 would set a dangerous precedent, perhaps leading to other courts coming to the council, hat in hand, and expecting complete fulfillment of their funding requests. Most important, he contended, was the need for consistency.

"I understand this small amount of money is extremely critical to a court of this size, but every day we work with precedent, and it has been the policy to go with option two," Buckley said, referring to Mono County's pro-rata share of $33,000.

Buckley added that the request did not amount to an unforeseen emergency.

"When I look at the criteria of the beginning urgent need for unforeseen emergency, unanticipated expenses, I know the court could come to us with far, far more money being needed. If this is our definition, of retirement not occurring when you expected it, retirement is going to happen," he said.

Gonzalez said that if the court did not get the full amount requested, it would be forced to close four days in the period before July 2016.

"It is a small amount. I know in the whole scheme of things, and the principles that I know you want to create and apply may seem more important, but you need to know what the impact is going to be on a court," he said.

Judge Samuel Feng of San Francisco, new to the council, pushed for full funding. "With the size of Mono County, even a day closure is a day without justice," he said, arguing, "We should take every issue on a case-by-case basis."

The council considered delaying a decision until December, but Gonzalez said that would be disastrous.

"We are in the middle of union negotiations that are being held based on this decision," he said. "If we do not get the complete amount requested of $49,000, I will have to assume I will have to negotiate for furlough closures. Making us wait until December does not help us. It forces me to implement the action immediately based on negotiations."

The council decided in the end to give the $49,000.

Earlier in the meeting, council staff director Martin Hoshino briefed the council on Gov. Brown's traffic-ticket amnesty program. The program is intended to help millions of drivers with suspended licenses pay back their delinquent traffic fines at a discount.

Hoshino said that since the program took effect Oct. 1, courts in Los Angeles County took over 91,000 phone calls and addressed nearly 9,000 tickets. By comparison, he said Shasta County Superior Court - serving a population of roughly 180,000 - has dealt with 1,000 cases at some level, an amount Hoshino said is "still a rather significant number if you look at the proportionality of what is occurring across the state of California."

At Tuesday's meeting, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye also swore in seven new council members: Justice James Humes of the First Appellate District; Judge Samuel Feng of San Francisco; Judges Dalila Lyons and Eric Taylor of Los Angeles; Jake Chatters, Placer County's executive officer; Kimberly Flener, executive officer of Butte County; and State Bar appointee Patrick Kelly.

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