The Push to Modernize California Courts Hits a Budgetary Wall

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference last week in Yountville, Calif.(AP Photo/Eric Risberg, Pool, File)

(CN) — The California Judicial Council’s budget committee met by video Thursday to weigh funding priorities for the next two years in the face of sudden and severe budget cuts to the judicial branch.

Technology tops that list. Like everything else, the coronavirus pandemic has forced judges and court clerks to reconsider the ways courts serve the public. And the disruption to court operations has spurred the Judicial Council to push the idea of a digital courthouse, where court services and proceedings can be handled online, provided they have a computer and access to the internet.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s May revised budget slashes $216 million of general funding for the judiciary, the brunt of which—$178 million—will be borne by the state’s 58 trial courts. But he preserved $25 million for technology initiatives, with the expectation that it will be used “for modernizing court operations with the goal of achieving efficiencies and increasing access to court services online.”

Whether that funding remains in the final budget Newsom will sign in July is unclear. State lawmakers are still hashing out the details, determined to put together a balanced budget by their June 15 deadline.

“The outcome of that $25 million is uncertain at this point,” John Wardlaw, Chief Administrative Officer for the Judicial Council, told the judges and clerks on the budget committee Thursday. “We’re hopeful the governor’s proposal will prevail but there are different views going on right now on that $25 million.”

The Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee voted 17-0 Thursday to pass a two-year option in favor of the funding, as opposed to Newsom’s ongoing proposal. The Assembly, whose budget sub-committee on public safety met last Thursday to discuss the judicial branch, has not voted on the matter yet. But Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), said at last weeks’ hearing that he would prioritize funding for pro bono attorneys’ services.

“With respect to the judicial branch budget, I understand the significant cuts that are there, but I look at the modernization funds— and I know this has been a long desire of the chief justice and Judicial Council— but I just can’t help but think that given the sacrifice that we’re making across the board, that preserving some of those monies—holding off on some of that modernization and spending it on protecting access to justice through legal services— would be probably better served at this time,” Stone said.

Speaking by phone Thursday, Stone said he supports the courts’ tech aspirations, but would like to see more money dedicated to helping the poor and vulnerable resolve their legal problems.

“One of my biggest issues is making sure we have enough money going out to the legal services program so people can have access to justice,” he said.

“I have no problem with the modernization money per se or the courts moving ahead with their IT projects, but I’m hoping we can look everywhere possible and be as creative as possible in ensuring that we meet our obligations to people who don’t otherwise have access to the courts, and a lot of that is done through legal services.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office, an independent agency that advises lawmakers on how to spend taxpayer dollars, also recommended that the Legislature reject the funding.

“We feel that projects, rather than being selected by the Judicial Council without legislative involvement, should be put through the normal budget process so that the Legislature can go through the typical vetting process to ensure that they are consistent with its priorities and appropriate,” judicial branch analyst Drew Soderberg told the Assembly budget sub-committee.

Knowing the money is not guaranteed, the Judicial Council’s budget committee approved a proposal for next year’s budget that would request roughly $17 million for data security and a handful of tech innovations for the courts, like remote appearances, a system for submitting video recordings and other evidence to the court electronically, and a statewide case index, a web portal through which people can look up their case numbers and be directed to the appropriate location for more information.

The budget change proposals will only advance if the Legislature rejects Newsom’s $25 million tech funding plan.

Wardlaw said these ideas are in line with what the Newsom’s May revise envisions in terms of efficiencies and digital court access.

“The governor’s intent is that the things identified here would be the types of things covered with the ongoing $25 million,” he said.

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