No Budget Relief for State Courts

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

The budget for California’s judiciary may be signed but how it will all play out is still unclear.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye says it is “too early to tell” if more layoffs are coming for staff in California’s courts of appeal and the Supreme Court, which has already seen dozens of staffers axed.  She met with all six presiding justices Friday to discuss where they stand, but they must wait to close out the books on a dismal year for the state courts.

Cantil-Sakauye talked to a group of reporters about the grim outlook for the state courts in the wake of Gov. Jerry Brown’s signing of a budget that includes $3.9 billion for state courts – a $544 million reduction from last year.

Perhaps as important as the budget axe has been the spending policy changes imposed by the budget bill.

The Judicial Council, the policy-setting and administrative arm of the courts, no longer has authority to touch the Trial Court Trust Fund for statewide projects without the Legislature’s approval.

This is an outgrowth of a tug-of-war for money between the local trial courts and the centralized Administrative Office of the Courts.  Local counties decried what they saw as loss of local funds to a large, inefficient bureaucracy in San Francisco.  The poster child for that was the $570 million failed computer project, Court Case Management System (CCMS).

The Legislature ordered that no more money could be spent on the computer system without its approval.

Cantil-Sakauye soft-pedaled the new strings tied to the courts’ checkbook.  “In an era of reduced appropriations to the judicial branch, the final budget supports our commitment to transparency and accountability as well as our effort to clarify judicial branch funding streams,” she said in a prepared statement.

As of July 2014, courts may no longer keep more than one percent of local funds in reserve funds for emergencies.  The budget orders courts to drain $235 million from their local reserves over the next two years.  [Getting the timing stretched out from one year to two was considered a victory for the courts.]

“Critical to our ability to operate efficiently and with some predictability, trial courts will have two years to spend down fund balances instead of one year,” she said.

Some county trial courts have dipped into reserves to pay for staff and avert layoffs.  But the new budget world is redefining emergency.

“We are in new territory here,” Cantil-Sakauye told reporters.  “We expect to come up with criteria [for allocation of funds and priority spending].”  She said the judiciary will be looking to a special working group assigned to give the Judicial Council guidance.

Construction Cuts

Construction projects in 38 courts were put on hold and $240 million in construction money redirected to court operations under the new austerity budget.  The savings come from halting design activities for at least one year.

Trial courts will also see a $50 million cut to all 58 counties on a proportional basis.

The Judicial Council was also directed to cut $11 million from AOC operations that would be redirected to the trial courts.

Asked if she was sorry the courts took over statewide funding of local trial courts, Cantil-Sakauye said, “Absolutely not.”  She said, after seeing the budget problems and funding issues faced by counties in the recession, “trial court funding was an act of genius by Chief Justice Ron George,” her predecessor.

 

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