Council cuts NCSC payout, CCMS boondoggle tied to prop 31, Courts desperate for emergency funds

Posted on October 30, 2012

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October 29, 2012Dear Members:We include for your information an article by Maria Dinzeo dealing with the recent action of the Judicial Council cutting its dues payment to the National Center for State Courts.  We pointed out several months ago that in the last fiscal year, the Council paid the NCSC nearly a million dollars for dues and ancillary services, an amount we felt was unjustified.  We are happy that the Council has agreed, at least in part, with this position.

We also include an article from the Recorder, dealing with the use of the failed CCMS project as a political issue in this year’s state elections, as well as another Courthouse News Article dealing with allocations from the emergency fund.

Finally, we report that Justice Richard Huffman, former 14-year Council veteran, received this year’s Ronald M. George Award for Judicial Excellence, along with Judge Wendy Lindley of the Orange County Superior Court.  Judge Charles Wachob, the Chair of the SEC Committee, was also nominated for this honor.  Even though Judge Wachob was not selected for the award, we again applaud him for his courage and dedication to the truth in shepherding the SEC committee through the process of the preparation of their landmark report, called “The Bible” by the Chief Justice.

Additional awards handed out by the Council last Friday included the William Vickrey Award for Judicial Administration, which went to AOC former interim Director Jody Patel (now an assistant to Director Jahr) and the Richard D. Huffman Award to Judge Stephen V. Manley of the Santa Clara Superior Court.Thank you for your continued support.Directors,
Alliance of California Judges

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Courthouse News Service
10/26/12

Council Cuts Think Tank Dues
By MARIA DINZEO
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SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s judiciary slashed the half-million-dollar fee it pays to the National Center for State Courts, a move approved unanimously by the Judicial Council Thursday.
“Given the level of cumulative budget reductions that we have faced and the need to ensure that we have the ability to staff continuing activities, what we are recommending is a 60 percent reduction of our dues,” said Jody Patel, newly appointed Chief of Staff for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
In her presentation to the council, Patel said that last year, the administrative office paid $571,000 in dues to center, which operates as a support group for state courts. This year’s fee was set to go even higher, to $582,000.
“As you can imagine, California being the most populous state, our assessment is larger than any other state in our nation,” she said, recommending that the council approve a reduced rate of $232,000 for 2013.
“I have had discussions with the NCSC, and they’ve noted that we are not the only state in the country who has paid a reduced amount in light of the fiscal crisis throughout our country.”
The amount paid every year to the national non-profit has drawn criticism in recent years from state judges urging the judiciary to eliminate unnecessary expenditures from the court budget and put all available funds directly toward keeping courthouses running.
A records request to the central administrative office shows that in addition to $571,000 membership dues, the administrative office, and ultimately the state’s taxpayers, shelled out another $32,000 to participate in the center’s Consortium for Language Access for the Courts and $7,500 in registration fees for the Court Technology Conference for a total payment to the center of roughly $611,000.
An April 2012 email from Chad Finke, Director of the AOC’s Court Programs and Services Division, to retired Los Angeles Judge Charles Horan said the National Center for State Courts received about $822,000 from the AOC from July 2011 to April 2012.
“From July 1, 2011, to date the AOC has paid the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) $822,877.05. Of that amount, $571,057 was for California’s 2012 annual assessment,” Finke wrote. “The remainder of the amount paid to the NCSC in fiscal year 2011-12 is for various other services.”
According to Jesse Rutledge with the National Center for State Courts, those other services include contracting for special projects for the courts.
In an email, he said, “Assessments paid by the states provide for many of our services, but courts can and do contract for specific projects in their local jurisdictions, and it would take far too long to enumerate that list here, which numbers in the dozens just in recent years. The size and value of those contracts can vary from a few thousand dollars to much larger. Suffice it to say, NCSC earns those contracts in a competitive environment, and we are proud of our record of performing projects that aim to improve the administration of justice in courts across the state of California.”
Rutledge said a few examples of such projects include helping the AOC determine how to best handle court security and threat reporting, at a cost of $98,000.
Individual trial courts like Los Angeles contracted with the center to assess its juror selection system for $125,000. The center also helped the Merced County Superior Court transition its master calendar system to an individual judge calendar system for $55,000, an amount partially subsidized by a state grant.
“Projects come in all shapes and sizes, and these are merely examples drawn from projects over many years,” Rutledge said.
On Thursday, Patel told the council that the administrative office currently isn’t paying the national center any money beyond its dues. “In the current fiscal year we do not have a contract with NCSC for any additional services,” she said.
The 60 percent reduction is another in a series of cutbacks following harsh funding cuts to the judiciary’s budget by the legislature.
Speaking to the council, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the judiciary’s budget woes seem to have unified the state’s judges, citing the optimistic mood she felt at this year’s annual judges conference in Monterey.
“I believe that in spite of our difficult budget year and many of the challenges facing the branch and the legal community, that there was a positive tone,” said the chief justice. “And I think a feeling at every engagement I attended an optimism in spite of the cuts, and maybe because of them, I think there exists even now a more collaborative effort to do whatever a we can to restore justice to California.”
She then officially swore in retired judge Steven Jahr as the fifth director of the AOC and the first ever to have also served as a judge.
Also sworn in were new council members Judge James Brandlin of Los Angeles County, Presiding Judge Laurie Earl of Sacramento County Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside County, Judge Allan Hardcastle of Sonoma County, Judge Morris Jacobson of Alameda County and Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County.
The council also took up a report from the Summit on Judicial Diversity, which found that while the percentage ethnic minority and women judges has increased slightly since 2006, the judiciary has a long way to go to before the gender and ethnic makeup of the bench fully reflects the state’s population.
“Caucasians comprise less than 40 percent of our state’s population. They are more than 72 percent of our bench. African-Americans are about 6.2 percent of the population, with about 5.7 percent of the bench. Asian Pacific islander, 13.1 percent of the population, about 5.8 percent of the bench. And Latinos comprise almost 40 percent of our population, about 8.2 percent representation in our judiciary,” said summit chair Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte of Alameda County. She added, “Let’s agree it’s going to take a long time. Does that mean we do nothing? Or does it mean that we continue incrementally to try to increase diversity on the bench? I think that’s the important question for all of us. It’s going to be hard. Progress is difficult. And progress is hard and progress takes a long, long time.” But, she said, “It is doable.”

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Desperate Courts Ask for Money But Only One Gets Bailout Funds
By MARIA DINZEO
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SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Two of California’s neediest trial courts petitioned the Judicial Council for emergency funds at its meeting Friday, but only one walked away with money.
While both Kings County and San Joaquin county courts are in dire fiscal straits, with negative fund balances of $2.2 million and $1.7 million respectively, the council voted to keep only Kings afloat until the end of the fiscal year with $94,000.
San Joaquin had initially asked for $2.2 million, or at the very least $442,000, the amount it had contributed to the judiciary’s emergency reserve. Presiding Judge David Warner of San Joaquin County Superior Court pleaded vehemently for the funds, saying the court’s understaffing issues have brought it to the brink of closing down its ability to handle a majority of the types of cases filed in the court.
“We’re no longer able to do all the case types. Beginning September 1st in our county, if you file a small claims action, it’s literally stuck in a box. And I get letters and calls from people saying, are you kidding me? Is this a joke? Are you doing some grandstanding here? And I tell them I have to have staff to process these cases,” Warner said.
“And we stopped small claims. Here’s the worst problem. That’s not enough. Even where we’re at right now, we’re not getting the cases done. We’re going to have to start to cut into other civil cases in order to balance that workload and the caseload that we have.”
Warner attributed the court’s financial crisis the way the courts are funded, a method he said has historically left San Joaquin as the most underfunded court in the state.
“I believe our county is a special situation brought about by historical, chronic, significant underfunding and a funding mechanism that this council controls, which has not been fixed, and that’s led to the situation that we’re in,” Warner said, noting that if the court received only $442,000 of the $2.2 million it requested, it will definitely lay off another 22 staff and start closing more regional courthouses.
“We’ve already closed Tracy completely, Lodi is down to one court. We’ll close it up and that will leave us with Manteca as an outlying branch,” he said. “At that point we will not only stop doing small claims, we will stop doing civil. There will be no civil cases in San Joaquin County. You can file it, we’ll stick it in a box, and good luck with that. That’s where it will sit. I have to have the staff to move those cases along.”
On the judiciary’s need to overhaul its funding structure, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said a committee formed in conjunction with the governor’s office will address the issue in the coming weeks.
“I think this is a critical piece that is significant to the trial court funding work group and the discussions to be had about the range of problems that the courts are facing,” said the chief justice. Three of the council’s judges are on that committee.
Judges on the council grilled Warner over what the court had been doing to cut costs since December 2011, when the council sent $2 million to the court — a $1.08 million grant and a $916,000 loan. Warner replied that the court was currently working it way through a list of 59 recommendations that the a group of judges and court officials had given them, and is still holding $916,000.
“The other 916,000 was to create a reserve, which at the time we were having reserves,” he said. “Until the state changed that. And so it was done as a loan. So it is still there. But it’s a loan that we pay back. So it sits there.”
The council members seemed to be in agreement that the generous payback period of five years meant that the court should be spending the $916,000 to meet its budgetary needs this year.
“To sit on a loan of $900,000, what good is the loan if in fact it wasn’t used other than to house it for five years to pay it back? And it’s not a criticism. I know these are difficult times,” said Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth of Riverside.
Presiding Judge David Rosenberg of Yolo County suggested the court consider closing its regional branches.
“I don’t think we are in a position here at the Judicial Council to micromanage or give you suggestions or tell you how to run your court,” said Rosenberg. “But I do want to say two things. There is a requirement in California that we have a superior court in each and every county. But there is no requirement that we have a superior court in each and every city.
I know that my court, about a decade ago, when we were in economic good times, decided to close a number of courts in communities,” he continued. “And brought all superior court functions back to the county seat. And sure, it’s inconvenient in many ways for people to drive 10 miles or 20 miles. But it was a significant cost saving measure. So that’s just the way it is in California today.”
He also acknowledged the structural problems in the judiciary’s funding system, but said, “I don’t think a court can constitutionally say, ‘you know, we’re just going to close small claims or we’re just going to close down probate or we’re going to close civil or traffic.’ I don’t think a court can do that. Will processing be a lot slower because of funding problems or staff problems? Yes, I’m sure it will be. But I think we are obligated to perform all the functions the law.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Warner said.
The council voted to defer a bailout to San Joaquin, directing the court to instead put the $916,000 loan to use and report its financial situation to the council at its next meeting in December.
Rosenberg, Justice Douglas Miller, Judge David De Alba of Sacramento and Judge Stephen Baker of Shasta County voted against the motion.
In an interview after the meeting, Miller said, “I was shocked like everyone else that they hadn’t used the $916,000 but I believe they are underfunded.”
He added that the court had been “making great strides” to cut costs, but “More than likely, they’ll be back here in December.”
The council also deferred action on whether to give each trial court a share of $25 million from the Trial Court Trust Fund and ask the Department of Finance and the legislature for the authority to distribute an additional $37 million from the fund. Justice Miller said he had met with state Finance Director Ana Matosantos, who had urged him to tell the council not to spend that money until January.
“She stressed that she wasn’t in any way indicating we didn’t have the discretion on one of those funds to make that appropriation. But that she didn’t feel that this was the appropriate time to do this,” Miller said. “And she was recommending that we would hold that off until our January Judicial Council meeting, when she felt and her office felt based on their analysis that we would all have a better more complete picture as to what the actual revenues were and what the actual expenditures were.”
The council also decided to hold off on giving the courts revenues from a new $30 fee for civil court reporter services in the amount each court collected until January, assuming that by then the governor’s trial court funding working group will have met and talked about how to allocate those funds.
Miller said Matosantos told him “she felt that that was something that should be decided in conjunction with the new working group that will evaluate that in consistency with the trial court funding act on a statewide basis.”
“I don’t want to win the battle and lose the war,” said Assistant Presiding Judge Ira Kaufman from Plumas County. “With the Department of Finance, we’re starting down a new road with them, with the working group. We’re talking about two months really. For 60 days to go into the meeting with good faith means a lot more sense than thumbing our nose and say we’re going to take $30.”
Judge Ellsworth was the only council member to vote against deferring the matter, saying it would cause problems for the courts.
She alluded to former council member Judge David Wesley of Los Angeles, who was often the lone dissenting vote on the council. “I’m going to Dave-Wesley this and say that I think the delay could cause some problems,” she said with a laugh.

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The Recorder

Capital Accounts: Failed Computer System Takes Turn as Campaign Bogeyman

Cheryl Miller

2012-10-26 03:34:30 PM

SACRAMENTO — The state judiciary’s fizzled Court Case Management System has reached a new level of infamy.

Proponents of Proposition 31, which would overhaul California’s budgeting process and place new restraints on state spending, are citing the oft-maligned computer network as a prime example of why voters should support their measure.

“The recent effort to create a unified Court Case Management System cost taxpayers more than $500 million, more than $200 million over budget, to connect just 7 of 58 counties before being abandoned,” reads the supporters’ ballot argument, which was included in the secretary of State’s election information pamphlet sent to California’s 17 million registered voters.

“Unless we pass Proposition 31,” the argument continues, “hundreds of millions of dollars every year will continue to be wasted that could be better used for local schools, law enforcement and other community priorities.”

Ouch. But the slap at the judiciary’s one-time pet project carries an additional sting. One of the three signatories to the Yes on Prop 31 argument is retired state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso.

Efforts to reach Reynoso at his office in UC-Davis School of Law were unsuccessful. The former associate justice has never been noted as a critic of CCMS or judicial branch leaders’ decisions. In fact, he briefly turned into an unofficial branch lobbyist in February when he urged at least one Assembly lawmaker to vote against Assembly Bill 1208.

Reynoso’s connection to the CCMS criticism probably has more to do with his position on the leadership council of California Forward, the nonpartisan good-government group that drafted Prop 31. Reynoso’s fellow signers on the Prop 31 argument, former state schools superintendent Delaine Eastin and Stanford University professor James Fishkin, are not listed as California Forward leaders, however.

The state auditor, as you’ll recall, blasted the CCMS project for its poor oversight and planning. Still, judicial leaders insisted that the system, meant to link case information among all 58 trial courts, would have worked if the Legislature hadn’t pulled the plug. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called the system “a Ferrari in the garage” but added there is no money to afford “the gas and insurance.”

Reynoso’s CCMS ballot argument doesn’t seem to be swaying voters. A late September Field Poll showed just 21 percent of respondents supporting the initiative.

COURTHOUSES CANCELED

Friday marked the end of the line, at least for the foreseeable future, for seven planned courthouse projects around the state. The Judicial Council officially “delayed indefinitely” construction of new facilities in Kern County (in Delano and Mojave), Los Angeles County (Glendale and Santa Clarita), Monterey County (Greenfield); Placer County (north Lake Tahoe); and Plumas (Quincy).

The move was no surprise. The Court Facilities Working Group had recommended icing the projects earlier this fall in wake of $1.5 billion in state cuts and borrowing from the branch’s construction fund.

Also not surprisingly, the decision to stop the seven new courthouses drew 14 pages of comments, mostly from local representatives angry that their projects were being nixed.

“While the project may need to be reduced in size or scope to address the current financial difficulties, we believe that any proposal that would cancel a construction project on this site this late in the game would be extremely damaging to the development efforts of our underserved and highly populated region,” wrote Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, whose district includes Greenfield, now the former home of a new south Monterey County courthouse.

Council members also heard from the Placer County sheriff, a judge and a county supervisor about the dangers of not building a proposed $27 million one-courtroom courthouse in north Lake Tahoe. But they didn’t change their minds.

“It’s not that [the seven] projects aren’t necessary. They are necessary,” said Fifth District Court of Appeal Justice Brad Hill, who chaired the facilities group. “It’s just in the scheme of things … they had to be set aside.”

EMERGENCY MEASURES

The Judicial Council on Friday also had bad news for San Joaquin County Superior Court, which had requested $2.2 million in emergency funding from the Trial Court Trust Fund. The council rejected the request, telling court leaders to come back with a report on how they spent a nearly $1 million loan the branch gave them last year.

It was the first test of the 2 percent council-level reserve created in this year’s state budget. Council leaders set up strict criteria that severely restrict when a financially troubled court can seek emergency funding and how much it can ask for. Fourth District Justice Douglas Miller, who chairs the council’s executive and planning committee, said five courts had applied for help but only two — San Joaquin and Kings — qualified for help under the council-set criteria. He did not name the three courts that were rejected.

Kings County Superior Court asked for $2.29 million in supplemental funding. The Central Valley court has started a 27-days-a-year furlough program for its workers, closed one courthouse, announced layoffs and forced top executives into a job-share system. The county is also planning to leave a shared mainframe, forcing the court to look for a new case management system or consider going back to a pad-and-paper method of record-keeping, Presiding Judge James LaPorte said.

The council granted the court $94,000, keeping with its policy of initially giving courts only as much as they contributed to the reserve fund. Courts can apply for more money for unexpected expenses later this year.

Council members seemed more skeptical of San Joaquin’s request, suggesting that the court had not done all it could to generate more revenues. Some also questioned whether the court’s low staffing level was truly worse than that of other courts.

San Joaquin County Superior Court Presiding Judge David Warner argued that the branch has historically recognized his court as severely underfunded and that the council needed to deal with its ongoing structural deficit. Warner warned that without additional funding his court will lay off more staff, close a courthouse and “stop doing civil” cases.

“You can file it,” Warner said. “We’ll stick it in a box and that’s where it will sit. And good luck with that.”

The council gave the court $1.08 million in emergency funding plus a $916,000 loan last December to help it maintain a required reserve and operating cash. Members voted against giving San Joaquin any new funding on Friday and instead asked the court to file a report in two months on how last year’s money was spent.

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JCW: We generally believe that the appropriate amount of dues we should pay the National Center for State Courts is zero.  The amount being proposed could keep several people on the job serving the public here in California. Instead, we end up creating jobs in Virginia and Colorado. The dues portion is a slippery slope where we feel confident that overpriced consulting contracts will make up the difference in dues.
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On the issue of courthouse projects: It is unjustifiable to  put 4 billion dollars worth of construction in the pipeline when you have no funding to maintain that 4 billion dollar investment nor the billions already invested into existing courthouses. Heck, we can’t even keep existing courthouse doors open. Shouldn’t public service and serving justice be paramount considerations?