SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a letter sent to the chief justice on Monday, San Francisco’s presiding judge squarely puts the blame for her court’s financial troubles on the army of highly paid bureaucrats from the Administrative Office of the Courts who have taken control of policy and finances in California’s 58 county courts.
“The San Francisco Superior Court faces an especially harsh solution to our deficit this year precisely because we mistakenly followed the AOC’s guidance last year,” wrote Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein.
The daughter of California’s senior U.S. senator, the judge said her court was prepared to lay off 122 employees in May 2010. “The very day we were scheduled to deliver those notices, AOC leaders called upon us not to issue those layoff notices,” Feinstein said in Monday’s letter to Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
The administrators claimed they were about to reach a deal with the legislature, she said, consisting of a $230 million package of “new revenues and redirection of branch funds intended to backfill prior cuts.” The administrators told her court that delivery of the notices would jeopardize that deal.
Instead, the legislature approved a $350 million budget cut to the judicial branch this June.
Feinstein said the delay in restructuring at the request of the AOC put it in an even worse position. “This delay alone now forces us to lay off 80 more employees than we would have had to lay off last year,” she said.
The bureaucracy’s fiscal stewardship has been challenged on a number of fronts in the last year, including its handling of an enormously expensive IT project, one-sided contracts in favor of a private consultant, gold-plated maintenance contracts that included payment of of $8,000 to remove gum from a courthouse sidewalk, retroactive pay raises when the state is in deficit and lavish pension benefits for its top executives.
Monday’s letter to the chief, which was also sent to members of the Judicial Council, asks for emergency funding for the cash strapped court in downtown San Francisco, which has been forced to lay off about 200 employees by October 3 and close almost half its courtrooms.
“The court remains in a perilous fiscal condition,” said Feinstein, pointing out that the court has only $4.6 million left in its reserve fund and is facing a projected cumulative $20.4 million deficit. Had the court not listened to the AOC, she said, the court would be on sound financial footing, with a $15 million reserve.
“We know that judicial branch cuts will not abate in Sacramento, given the lack of support for adequate trial court funding,” Feinstein said in the letter. “To date, we have received no offer of financial assistance from the AOC. Therefore, we urgently implore the Judicial Council to reallocate substantial branch resources to the financially troubled trial courts, including the court that is your next-door neighbor.”
A spokesperson for the court said Feinstein “has no comment beyond the letter.” Courthouse News asked the Administrative Office of the Courts for comment, but none has been provided.
In meting out the legislature’s $350 million budget cut, the Judicial Council adopted a 6.8 percent funding reduction to the trial courts at a meeting last month. While Feinstein and a host of other judges urged the council to make keeping courtroom doors open its first priority, some courts, San Diego in particular, are pushing ahead with building and technology projects.