Revised California Budget Slashes Millions From Court Funding

The economic meltdown caused by Covid-19 pandemic means key priorities for California’s judiciary — including courthouse construction and renovation projects — are off the table for now.

The historic Merced County courthouse. (Courthouse News photo/Chris Marshall)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The budget boost California Governor Gavin Newsom proposed for the courts in January was all but wiped away in the May revised budget he released Thursday, as the Covid-19 pandemic and consequent economic downturn left the state grappling with a $54 billion budget shortfall.

Newsom said the state has seen a 22.3% drop in tax revenue since January, when it looked like the courts would be getting a generous infusion of much-needed funding for new courthouses — $2.2 billion over five years, with $43.6 million of that amount for design and construction work to begin 2020-21. The Judicial Council has a list of 80 construction and renovation projects it was hoping the state would fund in the coming years.

Now that dream is all but dead, as the governor’s May revise withdrew funding for courthouse construction and other long-term priorities, like $8.1 million from the state’s general fund in 2020-21 and $15.5 million annually thereafter for a program that would staff courthouses with people to help unrepresented litigants find the right window or courtroom and navigate the complicated legal system.

That project is favored by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. “This kind of program will assist millions of our court users in understanding and following court processes,” she said earlier this year in a statement praising the governor’s investment. 

An additional $107.6 million Newsom proposed for trial court operations is also off the table, replaced with a funding cut of $206 million through mid-2022 for the trial courts, and $33.8 million for state appellate courts.

The ongoing cuts to the judicial branch could be rescinded if federal lawmakers pass a new $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill that could deliver California up to $50 billion in federal funding.

“Nothing breaks my heart more than making budget cuts,” Newsom said at a virtual press conference Thursday.  “We have been making historic investments in the last many years in the state of California.”

Those investments included restoring the nearly $1 billion the judiciary lost during the last economic recession, when funding for the courts peaked in 2010 at roughly $4 billion and then fell year by year to around $3 billion in 2012. 

Funding only started to trickle back into the judicial branch’s coffers in the latter years of former Governor Jerry Brown’s administration.

Just five months ago, Cantil-Sakauye called Newsom’s 2020-21 budget package for the courts “welcome news for our residents, who rely on a fair, just, and accessible court system.” On Thursday, the chief justice’s statement on the budget was doleful. 

“The state’s economic outlook is in a vastly different place than it was in January. The projected budget deficit is sobering,” she said, adding the judicial branch will try to work with Newsom and the Legislature to maintain services for the public. “My hope is that the financial burden of a deficit will be shared fairly by all sectors of government. No one wants to turn away those coming to our courts to seek justice.”

The proposal reflects the altered ways in which courts are doing business during a pandemic. Who needs new courthouses or navigators when courts are moving their operations online and trying to reduce the number of people coming into court?

To that end, the May revise preserves funding for tech initiatives, setting aside $25 million for electronic filing, digitizing documents, holding remote hearings, and resolving disputes online.

“We are providing them with some additional funding in the budget year to make the necessary changes to really modernize their court operations,” California Department of Finance director Keely Martin Bosler said. “Like the rest of us, they’ve had to make radical shifts in the way they conduct court businesses in order to protect access to justice. So those moneys would help make those changes more permanently.”

The May revise delivered some positive news for the judiciary, like $50 million in one-time funding to help courts address case backlogs stemming from suspended services and closures related to Covid-19 and “resume normal operations.”

Moreover, it retains a program included in Newsom’s January budget proposal that allows people to apply online for traffic fine and other fee reductions based on their ability to pay, and to make payments over time. The program was launched in four courts in 2019 and will be expanded statewide this year.

“We propose to maintain that expanded program in the May revision given the hardship that’s facing so many Californians given the recession,” Martin Bosler said.

“This program is even more critical with the onset of the Covid-19 recession as it will enable low-income individuals to apply online to have fines and fees from infractions reduced in accordance with their ability to pay,” Newsom’s budget proposal says. “Eligible participants will have their penalties reduced by 50% or more and can make payments over a period of time. In addition, online adjudication allows individuals to avoid physically appearing in court, thereby reducing public health risks to court users and staff.”

The budget also provides $238.5 million for 2020-21 to prevent revenue losses from fines and fees from affecting court operations.

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