California’s judicial governing body took an historic step to shift away from the funding allocation to 58 county courts and move to a system based on workload. The hope is that the change will get the Legislature off its back and restore some of the court funds lost in budget cuts.
During the Judicial Council’s Friday session it unanimously adopted a new budget allocation process that will be phased in over five years. The long phase-in period was the one thing that drew opposition from counties that have been struggling – particularly San Joaquin County, where the county seat of Stockton is in bankruptcy.
The old funding model has been in place since 1997 and was based on ratios of county size. This began a process that expanded the central administration of the courts in San Francisco, which became a thorn in the side of many local courts.
The original goal of the 1997 plan, signed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, was to create a state-funded trial court system and to provide long-term relief to counties, creating a reliable funding source for the trial courts.
In addition to the phase-in period, other elements of the new methodology – such as calculating labor costs – will be subject to additional refinement, according to a statement by the council. The courts will seek input from trial courts and key stakeholders on labor cost measures prior to approval by the Judicial Council.
The single largest expense for trial courts is labor costs, representing 79 percent of court costs, according to the report. Although the state funds the court system, the salaries and benefits are negotiated at the local level.
The report, with 18 recommendations for improved transparency, accountability and equal access to justice for Californians was accepted by the full council.
The plan was presented to the local courts, the Legislature, Governor, Department of Finance, organized labor and lawyers, prior to its approval Friday by the Judicial Council, according to Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge Laurie M. Earl. She served as co-chair of the budget working group.