New Bailout Process for California Courts OK’d

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – At its inaugural meeting Wednesday, a newly created budget committee for California’s judiciary approved a process for sending emergency funding to the state’s trial courts.
     The $10 million fund comes at the behest of Gov. Jerry Brown, whose 2016-17 budget package did away with a statutory requirement that courts contribute to a 2 percent statewide emergency reserve from their annual budget allocations, to be controlled by the Judicial Council.
     Brown mandated the 2 percent pot in 2013 when he swept the trial courts’ individual reserves, requiring them to spend down their budgets every year. Judges and court clerks balked at the idea, saying it stripped them of financial autonomy and the ability to plan for a crisis.
     This year Brown appears to have backed off a bit, scrapping the 2 percent fund for a $10 million one supported by the state’s general fund.
     The committee’s first order of business was to develop a plan for how courts can apply for some of that money.
     Butte County head clerk Kimberley Flener proposed revising the old application process by having courts’ applications for a loan or cash advance reviewed by a handful of fellow court administrators rather than just Judicial Council staff. The ad hoc group would include the three court administrators on the budget committee.
     The idea speaks to a long-running mistrust the state’s trial judges have in dealing with the staff of the council’s centralized bureaucracy, formerly called the Administrative Office of the Courts. A 2012 report on the bureaucracy’s function and organizational structure by a committee of judges noted, “A pervasive feeling in the trial courts is that the AOC developed a culture or attitude of control in its dealings with those in the judicial branch.”
     Flener said Thursday that court officials might be more receptive to working with their peers.
     “As court administrators we work together really closely, and I think it’s better received if another court administrator is calling with a question or asking for additional information rather than Judicial Council staff,” Flener said.
     Monterey County Judge Marla Anderson added, “I think it is a better process. Court executive officers are really the feet on the ground with respect to budgeting, and what they can do is make sure the application is complete, that they have stated their request clearly and what are the budget impacts to their particular court.”
     Judicial Council staff will first make sure the application is complete, then the ad hoc group will consider the request and report back to the budget committee. The committee will then review the request and make a recommendation to the full Judicial Council. The affected court will then present to the Judicial Council, which will vote on whether to grant the request.
     Any emergency money drawn from the $10 million pool will be replenished from the courts’ annual allocation the next fiscal year. Under the old 2 percent system, unused funds were distributed back to the courts, creating some uncertainty in local budget planning.
     “We all share in the replenishment, versus that specific court being on the hook to replenish the fund back to the $10 million. I feel like it’s fair. Part of the reason this committee is in existence is to create a branch-wide approach and we’re all in it together,” committee chair and San Diego County Judge David Rubin said.

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