In the new world of slashed budgets for the California courts it is clear some “sacred cows” will be sacrificed. Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said Friday she will assign working groups to consider such controversial proposals as: elimination of jury trials in misdemeanor cases when the penalty is less than six months and reduced preemptory challenges of potential jurors to speed up trials.
Her comments came during the last day in a three-day session of the Judicial Council in San Francisco.
Cantil-Sakauye is struggling to right the courts’ ship, which has foundered under $544 million in cuts for the coming fiscal year and cuts of $600 million in the preceding four annual budgets.
Her comments came in response to Justice Judith Ashmann-Gerst of Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. “We are told we need to make structural changes but any time we try they are shot down by the lawyers,” said Ashmann-Gerst. “We should consider no jury trials in misdemeanor cases when the penalty will be less than six months in jail. Prisoners are doing about a minute and a half anyway,” she said.
Cantil-Sakauye responded, “We may be able to when we get into working groups. We are reexamining changes in a new era. We want to craft them, rather than have them imposed by another entity,” she said, a reference to the Legislature and Governor, who hold the purse strings.
Doing away with even misdemeanor jury trials would not only be controversial but also would face legislative hurdles. California’s Constitution protects the right to jury trial, including misdemeanor offenses, according to Angela J. Davis, the state Bar representative and a federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.
“I know it is very controversial but I think we need to do it in this era,” she said and offered to work on the project.
California Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter said, “We’re really in a very difficult situation. Some sacred cows in the administration will be cut out. We have to start thinking about some of the things we wouldn’t even think about before.”
Baxter said lawyers should be asked to consider reducing the number of preemptory challenges to jurors, to speed jury selection and cut trial times. More trials should be done in fewer courtrooms, he added. On the civil side, electronic recording, rather than court reporters, should be considered, “so at least there is some recording of cases as opposed to none at all,” he said. (some courts have cut court reporters in civil cases in cost saving moves.)
Another Year of Furloughs
During the final day of the council’s public airing of its grim financial session, Jody Patel, interim Administrative Director of the Courts, said the new round of cuts will require the Administrative Office of the Courts to begin its fourth straight year of mandatory furloughs for staff. The staff currently takes one unpaid furlough day per month.
But the savings will not be as great as in the past three years due to layoffs. Savings will be down from $3 million to $2.5 million, she said.
Layoffs have also generated savings. One year ago the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), had over 1,100 employees, including temporary workers and contract hires.
Contract hires were cut from 124 to 74 and temporary employees from 146 to 64, she said.
Regular staff in the AOC will be cut from 861 to 723 and “that number will continue to decrease,” she said.
Patel said she is confident the AOC will be down to 864 employees by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
Failed Computer System
A decade of work to build a computer system to unite all 58-county trial courts under one system foundered under the weight of cost overruns, bad planning and poor oversight. Last month the Judicial Council voted to kill it. But pulling the plug has not been easy.
“Let’s be clear, the technology ship hit the iceberg and sank. We’ve got 58 lifeboats out there,” a reference to the county trial courts, according to Judge James Herman, chair of the council’s technology committee.
Killing off the computer upgrade “pulled the rug out from under San Luis Obispo” county court, which was about to replace its legacy system,” he said. In a survey of 51 county courts it was found that six courts have aging computer systems on the verge of failure and 22 more need to be replaced in less than five years.
The good news is that 35 county courts expressed interest in participating in a consortium to negotiate better terms with vendors, he said.
The council was operating without final numbers, which are not likely to be available until Monday, when the Legislature fashions what’s known as trailer bills that spell out the financial bottom line.