SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Judicial Council on Friday voted for a new method of allocating money among the local trial courts in California, the first time the funding formula has been changed in almost two decades.
The old funding model was frozen along historic lines, based on ratios established in 1994 that carried forward into 1997 legislation that centralized court funding and rule-making and started a big expansion of the central administrative office. After Friday's vote, trial court funding will slowly begin taking into account the volume of cases handled by individual trial courts along with other factors.
But the slow pace with which the new funding formula will be put in place brought a strong challenge from the presiding judge of seriously underfunded San Joaquin County.
"For over 15 years the inequity of that system has been perpetuated," said Presiding Judge David Warner in a public comment period at the start of the discussion. "It has rewarded some courts from a monetary standpoint and punished others."
Presenting the new funding model to the council, Sacramento Presiding Judge Laurie Earl said the reform was necessary to convince the governor and legislators that the judges are serious about getting their financial house in order.
"We have to do something in fiscal year 2013-14, and this is a precursor to seeing any further reinvestment in the trial courts to make sure the other branches of government and the public understand our budget development process and understand where the money that the branch gets is going," Earl said.
Presiding Judge Brian Walsh of Santa Clara County, a member of the sub-committee, put it more bluntly.
"The legislature said to us unless you come up with a new allocation method, we will not give you new funding," Walsh said.
All of the 17 voting members present at the meeting voted in favor of the new model, including the Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
The new plan will be implemented in small increments over five years. In the budget for 2017-2018, half of a court's funding will be based on the new model, and the other half will come from the historic model. Earl added that the most intense debate among the members of her funding methodology subcommittee centered on the transition schedule.
"This was by far the most boisterous discussion- about how and when we should implement the model," Earl told the council.
While judges and administrators argue that all 58 trial courts in California are underfunded, some are considered to be severely so. Under the new model, courts used to getting a traditionally higher share of the overall budget will inevitably have to give up some of that money to those courts in worse fiscal shape.
The five-year schedule is intended to give the courts with better funding a comfortable amount of time to trim their operations. But in a public comment period before the vote, Presiding Judge David Warner from San Joaquin urged the council to move ahead quickly, saying swift implementation is "key to the survival of the San Joaquin Superior Court."
"For over 15 years the inequity of that system has been perpetuated," said Warner. "It has rewarded some courts from a monetary standpoint and punished others."