SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – While deliberations over a massive court IT system dominated Tuesday’s Judicial Council meeting, the fear of next year’s shrunken budget drove an earlier confrontation between a judge from Los Angeles and the chief lobbyist for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
After three years of cumulative slashing of the overall court budget in California, trial courts are now putting in place radical plans to cut operations to the core, laying workers off and closing some courtrooms. The big push from the chief justice, the administrators and their lobbyists has been to convince the Legislature and the governor to restore $100 million to the court budget that goes into effect at the end of June.
The title match at Tuesday’s Judicial Council meeting was the decision to terminate an IT project that has drained a half-billion from court coffers over the last ten years. But before that discussion, there was a sharp exchange between Los Angeles judge David Wesley and chief AOC lobbyist Curt Child.
“The signals have not been overly positive that we are going to see that $100 million restoration,” said Child, speaking in a monotone. “However, as we have in past years, we will continue to make sure that the Legislature and the governor understands the impact and the importance of getting to that restoration.”
Wesley jumped in, “I was up in Sacramento when you were up there talking to the legislators, and when you say they were not overly positive, I would say they were overly negative. We’re not going to get $100 million from the Legislature and nobody believes we are. So what is plan B?”
Underlying the question over funding is the matter of who controls how the cuts are distributed, assuming the $100 million is not forthcoming.
Los Angeles and other trial courts have pushed hard to have all of the money allocated by the Legislature for the trial courts in fact sent to those courts, rather than seeing a big portion siphoned off by the administrators and the council for other projects, such as the extraordinarily expensive and now doomed IT system.
Los Angeles with 10 million residents and some 400 judges is the biggest court in the nation and faces a loss of 300 jobs and the closure of 50 courtrooms. Its judges would strongly prefer to control their own destiny rather than see the council sitting above them dole out the funds and the cuts as it sees fit.
“I think what is crucial as an important component in our discussions that we’re having is that in fact this body be given the discretion to make the determinations, how to best allocate the reductions,” said Child. “So what we plan — Judge Wesley — is to vigorously advocate that the council have that discretion. I would anticipate that every fund that the council oversees would be on the table for discussions about being used as a possible solution for the reductions.”
Wesley shot back in a raised voice, “They’re not going to give us a $100 million dollars and everybody around this table knows that!”
With that final challenge, discussion switched to the main act, the Court Case Management System.
AOC Finance Director Zlatko Theodorovic admitted there was no money to continue the IT system that has been in development for ten years and cost a half-billion dollars, only to be rejected by major trial courts.
Zlatko said succinctly, “It’s a difficult task to find the funds.”
Justice Harry Hull mused, “CCMS was a worthy goal, but one not ultimately achieved given the recession and the legislature’s determination as to how much money would be available to the judicial branch during that recession.”
In a final comment before the fatal vote, Judge Erica Yew of Santa Clara eulogized the IT project.
“We are here really at the benefit of many, many peoples’ work, their time, their energy, their hopes, their dreams,” she said. “Whatever we do today, I hope we don’t lose sight of the contributions that we will benefit from in our future, then we can take a moment to think all that we’ve done collectively because I think we deserve to pat ourselves on the back.”