SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Faced with budget cuts that have forced the closure of one courthouse, Ventura County Superior Court is turning the clock back and going to the county government for money. The move runs counter to a long campaign, started by former Chief Justice Ron George, to push California’s trial courts into a single system funded by the state and under the control of a central bureaucracy.
“If the state is not going to help us, we have to think of a creative solution,” said Dien Le, president of Ventura’s bar association.
“At least temporarily it looks like it would be a good way to go,” said Presiding Judge Vincent O’Neill. “We’re looking at it as a two-year, almost-grant project.”
In the neighboring giant of Los Angeles County, Judge Robert Dukes said, “I think it’s fascinating after this state trial court funding fiasco we now see where the downfall of that is. They’re going to go back to county funding because the counties are not in the same dire shape. If what Ventura is doing is working, others may start doing the same.”
Such a trend would reverse the long campaign to exert central control over the local courts, orchestated by the former chief justice in 1997, through legislation that moved the source of court funds to the state Legislature and away from the counties where it had been historically. At the same time, George began expanding the bureaucratic arm of the courts by leaps and bounds until it had more than tripled in size.
But that train has ground to a halt.
In its budget bill, the Legislature made sure the money it allocated for the local courts could not be siphoned off by the bureacracy and it has pushed that bureaucracy, the Administrative Office of the Courts, to cut its workforce. A recent and scathing report by a evaluation committee of judges recommended the office reduce its size by roughly one third.
In contrast to the initiative taken in Ventura, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, said recently that she does not support a return to local funding for the courts. She took over from George a little less than two years ago.
In a teleconference last week, one reporter asked the chief justice whether courts are better off going back to county funding.
“Absolutely not,” she replied. “Trial court funding was a genius act by chief justice Ron George.”
She noted that it is up to each court’s presiding judge and executive board to decide how best to handle the budget crisis. “Every court has an elected presiding judge and a team of judges who advise the presiding judges on how to move forward.”
“Our courts are comprised of very smart people,” she added. “It’s a matter of how each court can absorb this. I don’t have a one size fits all answer except it is probably not a solution that gets to be made by one person,” she said.
Le with the Ventura bar said he had no problem with uniformity for the courts, as it pertains to rules and websites, but it is a different matter when it comes to money.
“If they want to make everything uniform and controlled by Sacramento, that’s their problem,” said Le. “We’re all for uniformity, but if they’re not going to give us the budget, we have to help ourselves.”
Last week, Ventura Superior received $100,000 from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors to save its East County Courthouse in Simi Valley from closure. Le said the court needs $275,000 a year to stay open two days a week, and has asked several major Ventura County cities, including Thousand Oaks and Oxnard, for additional funds.
“They were very receptive and welcome to this idea, they were on board right away without any argument,” Le said.
Ventura’s head judge O’Neill credited local officials with the effort’s initial success. “Essentially what happened was the court gave notice of the impending closures, city supervisor Peter Foy responded and took the lead and the city manager from Simi Valley, Mike Sedell, joined the effort. Both of those gentlemen have been working hard to make it happen.”
But, he added, “In our mind, we’re still looking at a closed courthouse unless something good comes along money-wise.”
With the courthouse closure effective last month, Ventura will have to move all its cases from Simi Valley to Ventura’s Hall of Justice, including its traffic, criminal and unlawful detainer operations. So far, family law and civil matters have already moved.
“It’s going to be a big problem for a lot of people and it’s going to result in a delay in access to justice,” Le said. “All the employees were either laid off or moved to Ventura. There’s been a lot of layoffs. There’s only one commissioner who will sit in that courthouse.”
Ventura is a microcosm of the difficulty faced by all 58 local court systems up and down California. While the chief justice, bar organizations and the administrative office have lobbied the Legislature for an amelioration of the cuts, they have not been successful.
“The governor is not going to give us the budget,” he said. “For the future it doesn’t look good. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
Like many of the state’s courts, Ventura Superior is facing a multi-million-dollar budget deficit. Under the budget act signed by the governor last week, the courts can cover those deficits by using money from funds they have set aside in years past as reserves. But two years from now, those funds will be swept into one central pot to be doled out to courts for emergencies.
Dukes in Los Angeles said many courts’ financial forecasts are so bleak that there may not be any fund balances left in two years. “There’s not a lot of liquid funds like a pot of money in a bank account.”
Dukes noted that Ventura’s solution underscores a key weakness in statewide funding. Counties are more inclined to help the local courts, he said, as they are more familiar with needs of local residents.
“The counties have the same constituency as the trial court judges,” said Dukies. “They know the needs of their citizens. The county and the judges working together can address the problems within their counties. When everyone is brought down to the same common denominator, it’s no good.”
“If certain people have their way,” he continued, “we’d have one courthouse downtown with 500 courtrooms.”
Dukes said that while one courthouse would be more efficient for the state, it would be disastrous for people living in far-flung parts of the county.
In Ventura, O’Neill said he believed other counties may start to look locally for funding as judges up and down the state grapple with how to absorb this year’s $285 million in additional cuts to the courts.
“We don’t expect to set a precedent for long-term, as the state still needs to come up with the money to fund the courts,” he said. “I believe it to be unique, at least so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if some counties make a similar effort.”