Good News? California Judicial System Ready for Approval of New Budget/Spending Plan (After Continuous Cutbacks)

The final budget for the California Judiciary – which has been approved by the Legislature and awaits Gov. Brown’s signature – included some relief for a court system that has taken continuous cuts over the last five years. But there were indications that the money is too little, too late:  in Los Angeles County Superior Court, for example, it was announced that it would press forward with the elimination of 511 positions.

“On a bipartisan basis, California State Senate and State Assembly fought hard to ensure additional funding for the beleaguered judicial system,” chair of the Public Safety Budget Subcommittee Assembly Member Reginald Jones-Sawyer said. “It is unfortunate that the Los Angeles Superior Court, prematurely plans to eliminate more than 500 jobs by the end of the week before determining how this additional funding will help.”

As the spending plan emerged, the mood of State Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye was a mixture of gloom and gratitude.

“The proposed budget is an initial step forward in restoring the cuts absorbed by the branch,” she said in a statement. “We hope that as the state’s economy improves, the branch’s budget will improve, so we can rebuild the kind of access to justice the public deserves.”

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl is a bit more blunt.

“It certainly is a start after five successive years of cuts, we’re certainly grateful that we weren’t cut anymore and there’s actually an increase in funding, so we are grateful for that,” she said.

That focus on access to justice is why the restoration is targeted almost exclusively at the trial courts: they will receive $60 million while the state system will get the remaining $3 million for the Supreme Court, the Appellate courts, and the Habeas Corpus resource Center. This strategy reflects the statewide system’s failed attempts to computerize case management and minimize in the construction of a Long Beach courthouse, among other initiatives.

“The money can only be used for that. It cannot be used for raises, it cannot be used for construction or infrastructure projects,” Jones-Sawyer said. “It can only be used to keep the courts open and provide access to justice.”

Los Angeles’ trial courts have been some of the hardest hit in the $778 million of general fund reductions the justice system has taken over the last five years, but they are not the only ones: Trial courts everywhere have been affected. With their constituents’ access to justice directly affected, legislators were motivated to act.

In the State’s cautious revenue estimates, which included no money for the courts, the Legislature proposed $100 million. They eventually resolved to allow $63 million, with accountability language included.

The judicial system has generally embraced the accountability measures, Earl said. “The public has the right to know where and how the money is spent, the judicial branch should not be an exception to that.”

Earl served as co-chair of the Trial Budget Working Group, which developed a new funding methodology for trial courts in the interest of increasing court accountability and equal access to justice across the state.

According to Earl, until the late 90s, the courts received their funding from the counties, meaning their fiscal well-being was deeply entrenched in the economic condition of the county and their relationship with local government. As a result, trial court funding was highly inconsistent across counties.

In 1997, the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act shifted the source of the funding from the counties to the state, but that inequity among trial courts remained. The state based its distribution of funding on the amounts that the courts received from counties in 1994.

“That [amount] had never been adjusted, ever, over the years, despite increased populations, increased workloads, especially in places we hear about now like the Inland Empires and the Sacramento Valley,” Earl said. “As those populations grew, their workload grew and they never got more money.”

The new system is workload-based, which the Judicial Council and the Trial Court Budget Working Group that developed the methodology hope will make the distribution of funds more fair across counties and maximize access to justice.

According to Earl, some counties, such as San Diego, Santa Clara, Orange County, and San Francisco had received more money than was necessary for their workload in the past and will therefore lose some money under the new allocation methodology. Others that have been particularly affected by budget cuts, such as Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Fresno, Riverside, and San Joaquin, will receive more, she said.

In general, the judiciary has responded positively to efforts to increase accountability, even when it means losing money. For example, the San Francisco Superior Court will lose $7.8 million under the new system, but a statement from presiding Judge Cynthia Ming-mei Lee was accepting of the change:

I appreciate the subcommittee’s work on this complicated issue. While the methodology is complex, the reason for adopting it is not. It’s about fairness,” Lee said. “Accessing justice in San Francisco ought to be the same as accessing justice in any other county in the state.”

But Earl pointed out there is injustice in the impact of state mistakes on local access to justice.

“I appreciate the legislature is upset with things like CCMS [the Court Case Management System] and Long Beach cost of construction, but the trial courts were never involved in any of those things,” Earl said. Legislators seem responsive to that perspective:

“That’s why most of the money is not going to our statewide court system,” Assembly Member Nancy Skinner, who sits on the Budget Subcommittee for Public Safety, said. “It’s going to trial courts because what we want the money to be used for is to expand the services, open the doors, and give the courts more hours of operation, and that’s really our intention.”

Yet the accountability measures may still affect the trial courts’ ability to fulfill those functions, Earl said.

For example, Earl said her court in particular will be devastated by the 1 percent reserve cap that will go into effect with the 2014-2015 budget. Though the Legislature pushed to raise that cap in subcommittees, as a part of the compromise to give the courts the restoration, the administration’s proposal remained, along with trailer bill language to ease the courts’ management of the reserves. The Legislative Analyst’s Office argued that the trailer bill language still failed to address how the cap will affect projects traditionally funded by reserves, such as technology.

Earl anticipates that the courts will fall behind technologically over the next few years. Though courts are allowed to maintain the parts of the CCMS that had already been installed, they cannot use the new money for infrastructure or construction.

“In terms of technology I’d say we’re in a Catch-22 because while the state was headed down to the streamlined solution to technology, whether everybody thinks it’s good or bad, we no longer have that option, so now each court is responsible for coming up with its own solutions,” Earl said. “You’ll see greater collaboration among the courts to find solutions that benefit more than one court at a time, but we all have to find the money to be able to support these things, and whether or not the 60 million is enough for the courts to be able to do that, I don’t know.”

It’s already been indicated by the layoffs in Los Angeles that for some courts, the money will certainly not be enough to counter the effects five years of continuous cuts have had.

“For some courts, the amount they get from that 60 million will not be enough to significantly change the plans that they have,” Earl said. “For some courts I think it will provide some measure of relief and for some courts I think it will allow them to not go any further in their reductions, it will give them a little bit of boost to help them for at least another year.”

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