SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The governor’s proposed $3.43 billion budget for the judiciary has brought watchful quiet to a battle between trial judges faced with disintegrating courts and the central administrative body of the court, which is defending expensive computer and construction projects against criticism by many of those judges. The funding, if adopted by the Legislature, would bring relief to courts that have been shutting their doors one day a month to save money while laying off hundreds of court workers and planning to lay off hundreds more.
In the run-up to the funding proposal, judges were uncharacteristically willing to advocate through the press and any other means for a re-ordered set of priorities from the central body of the courts, the Judicial Council and its administrative arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts.
The trial court judges criticized multi-millions spent on private consultants for a central computer system and billions dedicated to construction projects while the trial courts languished and lines at the courthouse grew longer and longer.
The dispute came to a head when the leadership of the Los Angeles courts asked for $47 million from the court’s central body which defended itself by charging that the Los Angeles judges were exaggerating their plight. That exchange brought fireworks to the normally placid Judicial Council which tends to hash things out quietly and vote without debate in public sessions.
Assistant Finance Director Stephen Nash, from the Administrative Office of the Courts, said during the meeting that Los Angeles Superior Court had “overestimated” the amount of money it would need to avoid laying off 500 employees in the fall. A retired judge on the council, Terry Friedman, said, “There is no credibility left in LA.”
Defending her court, Assistant Presiding Judge Lee Edmon called the AOC’s stance “an unnecessary second-guessing of Los Angeles’ judgment.” She suggested the AOC is far removed from the daily grind of justice in the courthouses of California, saying, “The AOC is not in the trenches every day.”
But all that changed when Schwarzenegger made that revised budget proposal last month, after a long meeting between the Governor and the Chief Justice of the California courts, Ronald George.
George has argued that a court that says “closed for business” sends a terrible message to the people of California. That argument would resonate with a moderate Republican governor and individual legislators who are law enforcement oriented and also favor an effective state government. Potential opposition may come from Democrats who see programs for the poor and disabled gutted while schools have to cut teachers and in some cases close altogether.
Specifically, the governor’s proposed budget restores $100 million that was initially set to be cut from the court’s budget for next year. An official in the Department of Finance said the $100 million should not be called a restoration but is instead the result of federal funds sent to the state.
“It’s actually not a restoration to the budget,” said H.D. Palmer, Deputy Director for External Affairs for the Department of Finance. “Back in January, the Governor assumed we would receive a number of federal funds. If we did not receive those funds, there would be number of planned cuts, including $100 million from the judiciary. So now, the trigger that was in there in January that had this potential reduction is now off of the table.”
There is little doubt that the money in addition to other funds from increased fines and fees would do wonders for the operation of the courts. Almost a quarter of the court staff in San Francisco Superior Court received a reprieve from layoffs scheduled for last month, when the proposed budget was announced.
But the budget must still pass through the Legislature, with debate likely to heat up in the next few weeks. In the meantime, it is as though everyone in the courts is holding their breath. And nobody is commenting publicly.
A request to interview the presiding judge in San Francisco Superior Court was declined.
In Los Angeles Superior Court, the public information office did not answer three emails requesting interviews on the subject of the budget.
The press office for the Administrative Office of the Courts likewise did not return a request for comment.
“I assume it is because they don’t want to upset the delicate political balance of a precarious budget which may or may not hold together,” said a judge who preferred not to be named. “They all need the funds being proposed, and there is no advantage to be gained by being pulled into public debate.”