Chief Justice Downplays Judicial Branch Reform

Posted on July 1, 2012

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June 29, 2012

Dear Members and Others,

We include for you an article by The Recorder’s Cheryl Miller concerning the recently enacted judicial branch budget.

Ms. Miller accurately observes: “…Brown’s budget reshapes the judiciary’s very financing structure by blocking the Judicial Council from tapping the Trial Court Trust Fund…..The provision marks a significant victory for branch administrative critics, including the Alliance of California Judges…

We wish to take the opportunity again to thank Legislative leadership and their staff as well as the Governor and his staff for acting upon the most significant reform our branch has seen in fifteen years. We are grateful for the enactment of these significant changes despite intense lobbying against them by the AOC and Judicial Council leadership.

Directors, Alliance of California Judges

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Court Budget Now Signed, But Math Remains Fuzzy

Cheryl Miller
2012-06-28 05:34:13 PM
SACRAMENTO — Governor Jerry Brown signed a flurry of legislation Wednesday and Thursday that chops $544 million from California’s judiciary and enacts sweeping new court financing policies.
The budget, which takes effect Sunday, will drain $235 million from local courts’ reserves, redirect $240 million that was supposed to fund court construction and cut another $50 million in funding (on top of a $100 million cut the branch had already agreed to take). The spending plan also starts a two-year clock ticking on local courts’ long-coveted authority to maintain fund balances. As of July 2014, courts will no longer be able to keep more than one percent of local money in reserve.

“It’s a bad situation no matter how you look at it,” said Tamara Beard, court executive officer of Fresno County Superior Court.
Beard, like other court leaders, was still trying to pencil out the budget math on Thursday. Early estimates from finance officials with the Administrative Office of the Courts show Fresno could lose $12.1 million in funding next year. The court has already announced plans to shutter seven outlying courthouses by Aug. 6 and to focus operations in its central Fresno facility because, Beard said, “It’s that bad.”

The budget “is still up in the air in many respects,” Beard said. “There are so many unknowns that I could not sit here and categorically tell you all of the things that we are going to do.”
A working group of presiding judges and court executives was scheduled to meet by phone on Thursday to try to start early planning on allocations and funding procedures that must ultimately be approved by the Judicial Council.

That task was potentially made more difficult Thursday when the governor vetoed language that would have allowed the Judicial Council to offset some trial court cuts by shifting branch funds. Brown wrote that the provision was unnecessary because “the budget already provides the appropriate level of funding … for each level of the Judiciary.”
Beyond the funding cuts, Brown’s budget reshapes the judiciary’s very financing structure by blocking the Judicial Council from tapping the Trial Court Trust Fund — the branch’s biggest single account — for statewide projects without the Legislature’s approval. The provision marks a significant victory for branch administration critics, including the Alliance of California Judges, who say too much money has been siphoned away from trial courts for programs like the ill-fated Court Case Management System.
“The Legislature was concerned that local courts were getting less than they had anticipated because of some decisions made after the fact by the Judicial Council,” said Fredericka McGee, general counsel to Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles. “By limiting access to the [Trial Court Trust] Fund, everything is now planned beforehand, similar to the way it’s done in the executive branch.”

In a statement issued Thursday, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye downplayed the budget’s political handcuffing of her branch, saying that a newly created fund — the State Trial Court Improvement and Modernization Fund — would still allow the Judicial Council to fund statewide programs.
“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,” Cantil-Sakauye said.

But the new Improvement and Modernization Fund, created from the merger of two existing judicial accounts, contains just a fraction of the money held by the trial court fund.
“We’re pleased that the Legislature has reasserted its constitutional authority over” trial court funding,” said Michelle Castro, lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, which represents thousands of court workers. “This will result in major improvements to the judicial branch.”
Yolo County Superior Court Presiding Judge David Rosenberg, chair of the Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee, acknowledged the Legislature’s role in appropriating money for the judicial branch.

“But to some extent these legislative restrictions are a reaction to a prior Judicial Council and a prior chief justice,” he said.
The budget also creates a new 2 percent reserve controlled by the Judicial Council. The council will dole out money from the fund — expected to total about $27 million next year — to needy trial courts in October and March. Brown did not specify the criteria the council should use in funding decisions. That will be left to a budget working group and the council, Rosenberg said.

“I could see one large court, say Los Angeles or San Diego, needing the [entire] pot,” Rosenberg said. “How are we going to make those decisions?”
The governor’s final spending plan did not include any language, originally included in his May Revise budget, about creating a working group to evaluate the success of the Trial Court Funding Act 15 years after it was enacted. Branch leaders have said they’ve heard nothing more about the proposal since the Brown administration introduced it almost two months ago.