Stage Set for Battle Over Trial Court Funds

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s Judicial Council is gearing up for battle over whether the state agency in charge of the courts has the power to finance a controversial $1.3 billion technology project by taking some of the money from a fund dedicated to cash-strapped trial courts. The council voted 17-1 last week to approve a budget change proposal that would increase the agency’s spending power to include a draw on the Trial Court Trust Fund.

     The budget proposal would give the state Administrative Office of the Courts greater spending authority, allowing it to tap the trial court fund and others in an effort to raise $19 million for technology projects.
     The centerpiece of those projects is the Court Case Management System, intended to create a uniform computer system for managing case information throughout the state. That system has been subjected to severe criticism by legislators and trial court judges over its estimated price tag of $1.3 billion.
     In his presentation to the Judicial Council last Friday, AOC Finance Director Stephen Nash emphasized that the vote would not actually confer any spending power to the AOC as of yet, but said the budget change proposal needed to be approved and submitted to the Department of Finance by the Sept. 15 deadline for consideration next year.
      “We’re not asking you to allocate. This isn’t transferring any money,” said Nash. “There’s no trying to slip anything in here. This is a standard review and standard technical proposal that we have. What we’re doing is again sending to Department of Finance our proposed adjustments. Those still have to go to the Legislature for review and for next year.”
      Nash said the proposed budget changes would be discussed in more detail at a meeting of the Accountability and Efficiency Committee which was created by former Chief Justice Ronald George. The Accountability and Efficiency Committee is chaired by the newly appointed and confirmed California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
      The question of spending authority has been a point of contention between the AOC and many of the state’s trial judges, a group of whom have criticized the AOC’s costly and problem-plagued computer system and have argued that its funding has been at the cost of the day-to-day operations of the courts, many of which have had to cut staff and close one day a month.
      In his address to the council, AOC Director William Vickrey acknowledged the validity of the judges’ concerns. “There have been reasonable requests — or not reasonable requests, but reasonable questions raised,” said Vickrey, “about where does the authority begin and end to move money in the process.”
      “The larger question is that CCMS is unfunded,” Lampe said. “The only way to pay for it has been to take it from existing funds, primarily from the operating expenses of the trial courts,” said Kern County Superior Court Judge Lampe, one of the directors of the Alliance of California Judges. In an interview, Lampe said he was glad that Vickrey and the AOC “stated that they felt that the issues we raised regarding authority and consent of the trial courts are reasonable questions. This is the first time they’ve indicated that.”
     It will be December before the Judicial Council debates the authority issue, but Lampe said the consent of the trial courts are still needed before the AOC can draw from the disputed funds — estimated to total $133 million, according to an AOC report to the legislature.
     “It’s a long process,” Lampe said. “They still need to get the authority. In fairness to them they were just saying if we don’t do this we’ll be foreclosed from having that discussion later.”
      San Diego Superior Judge Runston Maino said the question of state court consent for funding CCMS will continue to be a contentious one. “Speaking as an individual judge, I think the consent issue is crucial, because without the consent of the judges, CCMS is not economically viable. Do we have the control to do anything at all or do we have to go along with what the AOC says, even if it doesn’t make economic sense?”

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