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Revised California Budget Puts $60M More Into Courts

(CN) - An additional $60 million for California's trial courts in the revised budget Gov. Jerry Brown released today came with a demand that the Judicial Council aggressively cut court operating costs.

"More elegant and efficient ways of doing what they're doing have to be discovered and created," Brown said, referring to both the courts and the state university system. "It's not going to be easy. This wrenching but creative process of adjusting downward the cost structure is the challenge but is needed going forward."

Brown's proposed budget from January offered the judiciary $105 million, far less than the $266 million Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakuaye said was needed to keep trial courts from "treading water" for another year.

But Brown told reporters Tuesday morning that "you can't just say we need more money or we shut down."

The budget focuses on paying for California's unfunded public school teacher pensions, increased Medi-Cal costs and $11 billion in state debt. It also establishes a $1.6 billion rainy day fund.

"We have to recognize we've done a lot already and we haven't paid for a lot what we've already done," Brown said.

The governor released the revised budget one week after state lawmakers sent two letters urging him to significantly increase the judiciary's budget allocation to $336 million.

Bob Wieckowski, the Judiciary Committee chair who sent one of those letters, said there is still more work to do.

"I applaud the governor's decision to better fund the teachers retirement pension system, but I believe we should move more aggressively to restore the deep cuts that were made to the Judicial Branch," Wieckowski, a Democratic assemblyman for Fremont, said in a statement. "More than 50 courthouses and 205 courtrooms have closed across the state, forcing parties, law enforcement, witnesses and jurors to travel longer distances just to have access to justice. The proposed $160 million for trial court funding is still less than half of what the third branch says it needs to avoid further cuts. While our courts should always seek ways to operate more efficiently, additional savings will fall far short of the $336 million that is needed to make them operate smoothly and provide the access to justice all Californians deserve."

Department of Finance Director Michael Cohen said the $160 million for the courts is part of a two-year strategy to stabilize court funding while the Judicial Council and the chief justice look for ways to tighten operating costs. Most of the additional funds will go toward paying court-employee pensions and benefits and backfilling a shortfall in filing-fee revenue.

"We expect the chief justice and Judicial Council to take the lead in finding new ways to operate, whether or not some of those courthouses should reopen or not, and find as many efficiencies as possible," Cohen told reporters. "We really expect the Judicial Council as sort of an independent branch to take the lead on this effort, but we'll be working with them as partners to help them find as many efficiencies as we can."

Presiding Judge Robert Hight of Sacramento said courts are already sharing ideas on how to operate more efficiently. "All of the 58 courts have gotten together and put on our court websites 69 efficiencies, items that one court does that streamlines certain processes so they're available to everybody," Hight said.

But, he added, "most efficiencies cost money because they require some sort of computerization."

Hight also addressed the idea of courthouses not reopening, when people are driving up to 50 miles to file cases or make appearances in some of the state's more vast and rural counties. "Riverside and San Bernardino are an example of where they've closed courthouses and people have to drive a long ways to get to court," Hight said. "I don't know how you can make the argument those courthouses don't need to reopen."

Calling the additional $60 million a "nice start," Hight added: "I'm hopeful that we can convince him that we still need more. He's going in the right direction."

At an Assembly hearing on the budget last week, Hight said the $105 million Brown had proposed in January would force his court to lay off 30 people.

"This looks like we'll have just enough to stay absolutely flat without having to lay anybody off," Hight said Tuesday. "That's our best guess right now."

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye was optimistic in her comments on the budget, calling Brown's proposal "encouraging."

"The trial courts will require a reinvestment to provide adequate services for court users," she said. "I look forward to working with the governor and the Legislature before the adoption of the Budget Act to ensure that all Californians have access to justice."

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