Important budget message from ACJ President Steve White

Posted on May 8, 2013

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May 8, 2013

I am sending you this important message regarding the 2013-2014 Judiciary budget. We anticipate the release of the Governor’s May Revise next week. Alliance members have been engaged in quiet discussion with members and staff of the Legislature and with some within the Executive branch. There has been meaningful concern expressed within the Legislature that the budget cuts to the courts have resulted in a serious erosion of public access to justice. Some restoration of funding is being considered. We anticipate that the Speaker of the Assembly may soon announce the primary budget goals of the Assembly and are optimistic that these will include a proposal for additional trial court funding. We expect the proposal to be coupled with strict demands for transparency and accountability, and a direction that 100% of the money be directed to the trial courts.

In April the Director of the AOC, Steven Jahr, released a statement that clarified action by the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on April 5, 2013. Director Jahr correctly pointed out that the Subcommittee had simply confirmed the Governor’s proposed budget, which continues a permanent, ongoing cut of $535 million to the branch, requiring the trial courts to absorb an additional $261 million in cuts by the end of this fiscal year.

Director Jahr’s communication also confirmed that the AOC’s proposed funding solutions this year include a request for a full restoration of funding including:

  • $475 million restored from the General Fund
  • $18.5 million to fund appellate court costs
  • $49.3 million for employee health care and retirement cost increases
  • Elimination of the 1% trial court reserve balance limitation

The Alliance supports these goals, and the efforts of the Chief Justice in pursuing them.  We also recognize there must be buy-in of the Legislative and Executive branches.  Having these considerations very much in mind, we have not made any specific budget proposals while awaiting the Governor’s May Revise and the stated positions of the two legislative houses. After the May revise, and especially if, as we expect, it does not propose additional trial court funding, we plan to offer meaningful options for restoring branch funding.

Throughout the state, our courtrooms are shutting down. We are no longer able to provide essential services to our communities, the people who elect us to serve justice. At least 200 courtrooms have closed and 2500 court workers have lost their jobs. For the first time in our history, our core ethic — the adjudication of cases and controversies — is threatened. This did not happen even in the Great Depression.

This cannot abide. The priorities of this branch must be revisited.

I would like to close with a laudatory reference to the important action taken by Judge Laurie Earl’s subcommittee of the Trial Court Working Group.  The committee proposed a new allocation model for funding the trial courts, which has now been “adopted” by the Judicial Council. We understand and agree with the effort to recast the existing historic funding model that may perpetuate inequities. However, trial court funding is a function of the Legislature. It is a creature of statute, not a constitutional function of the Judicial Council. This change was not mandated by the Legislature or the Department of Finance. Such an important change requires a fuller and more inclusive vetting and more input than occurred in the closed committee process.  Just as in the federal courts and the other state courts, the Legislative and Executive branches also play an important role in this.  Judges should not presume that we can make such significant changes without the buy-in of our sister branches.  This is as it should be.  Even for those who wish it were otherwise, the three branches of government are necessarily part of the decision.

Very truly yours,

Judge Steve White

President

The Alliance of California Judges