Legislative committee restores only $63 million in court cuts

Posted on June 11, 2013

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On Monday evening a legislative committee agreed to a budget that will be submitted to both the assembly and the senate that is much closer to Brown’s proposed budget than projected tax revenues. Unfortunately, that budget proposal only restores $63 million in cuts to a branch of government that is reeling after years of deep cuts. Even though the budget has been agreed to in principle, it probably wouldn’t be too late to move additional judicial council\AOC money to the trial courts in the budget language. Also this evening we received this communique from the Alliance of California Judges about the budget, which was disseminated in advance of last night’s legislative action. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s crunch time. For the past couple of years the AOC has pushed their pet projects at the cost of our justice system and this needs to change now. It is in your collective powers to get together and speak with a very loud voice to prevent this continued dismantling of our justice system.

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June 10, 2013

Dear California Media,

Last week Alliance directors were in Sacramento for a number of days speaking on budget matters.

The legislature was poised to include $100 million of additional general fund money for the judiciary in the upcoming budget, all to go to the trial courts. The Senate proposed that $6 million of that money go to the Courts of Appeal after lobbying efforts by members of the Judicial Council. In conference committee, the legislature agreed to add $6 million to the $100 million so that the trial courts will have the $100 million intended, with $6 million additional for the Courts of Appeal. Bear in mind that the Governor’s office and the Department of Finance continue to state that NO new funding will be approved. For this reason, while we are hopeful, there is significant doubt as to whether the $100 million will reach the final budget or survive the Governor’s opposition.

Any legislative authorization for these funds will come with conditions. For example, the legislature is poised to  require the Council and AOC to open their committee and task force meetings to the public. This is something the Alliance has fought for since its inception. AOC Director Jahr objected to the proposal arguing that it would increase costs and that it should be done by Rule of Court, rather than a budget bill. The Alliance believes that legislation is overdue to require more openness and transparency by the AOC and Judicial Council. Secrecy cannot endure if we hope to restore judicial branch credibility, particularly when we are asking for more funding. An article by Cheryl Miller of The Recorder follows which reports on these developments.

The Legislative and Executive Branches hold the AOC and Council in very low esteem based upon the understandable perception that they have been poor stewards of public money. The judiciary is being spoken of in terms usually reserved for lawbreakers–branch leadership is said to be on “probation” for their spending excesses and other abuses.

The message the Alliance brought to the legislature was that action is needed beyond the $100 million being proposed. That amount is not sufficient to substantially reverse the steps trial courts have taken to reduce services. For that reason, we asked that the legislature and Governor’s office provide authority for the redirection of up to $150 million of funds already included within the Governor’s proposed judiciary budget.

You may recall that the Chief Justice noted after the May budget revise that “trailer bill” language was being worked on that would authorize the trial courts to “borrow” up to $150 million from existing resources. As stated by Alliance President, Judge Steve White, “If there is $150 million available to borrow, then there is $150 million to redirect.”  The trial courts should not have to borrow money that would have been delivered to them in the first place if not for the fiscal mismanagement of the AOC.

The Judicial Council and AOC budget is roughly $150 million. The Facilities Program has a $263 million budget, and the State Court Facilities Construction Fund is projected to have a $128 million “contingency” reserve. The full details of these expenditures have not been released to the legislature, the Department of Finance, the courts, or the public. We are not suggesting that all of these funds are available. Many essential functions (such as courthouse maintenance) are included within these funds. Our belief is that nothing is more important than keeping courthouses open, and that ALL funds must be carefully scrutinized.  Is it truly necessary to have an AOC staff of 73 people, many of them lawyers, to administer the judicial education program?  Why are there 157 people (including 54 contractors) in the AOC’s IT division AFTER the termination of CCMS? Are 86 people necessary for the Trial Court Services Division?

As to every single dollar spent by the AOC and Council, the following question must be asked:  Is this expenditure substantially more important than directing those dollars to keep a trial court open? To answer that question, EVERY dollar spent by the AOC must be on the table, and the AOC must publicly and transparently reveal how existing funds in its hands are being spent.

Very truly yours,

Directors, Alliance of California Judges

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The Recorder

AOC May Be Forced to Open Meetings
Cheryl Miller
2013-06-06 04:49:02 PM
SACRAMENTO — State judicial leaders are balking at a legislative proposal that would force the branch to open its many committee, task force and working group meetings to the public.

Assembly lawmakers have endorsed a budget policy statement that would end the judiciary’s decades-long practice of convening most policymaking and rulemaking committees behind closed doors — usually without publicly noticing the meetings first or posting their actions later.

Fredericka McGee, general counsel to Assembly Speaker John Perez, said the proposal is part of the speaker’s budget “blueprint,” which offers more budget money — $100 million — to the judicial branch with certain “accountability” provisions attached.

Judicial leaders are resisting any legislative mandate, arguing that the chief justice and Judicial Council should be allowed to develop their own Rules of Court for open meetings.

“There are cost issues and many considerations,” said Administrative Office of the Courts director Steven Jahr. “It’s not something that can be done in the space of a hastily drawn up trailer bill.”

The open-door proposal, McGee said, stems from the actions of a judicial working group that created a new funding allocation formula for trial courts in work done almost entirely in private meetings. The formula was only made public days before the Judicial Council approved it in April.

“It’s not to say that the methodology is flawed,” she said. “But I kept getting complaints from people that they wished they could have been part of the process and known what was going on.”

The proposal has not been translated into actual budget language yet. And it’s not clear if it has the support of Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who has been much more willing to give the judicial branch additional money without the strings sought by the Assembly.

“A lot of advisory groups meet only by phone,” Jahr said. “Then the question arises, OK, how do you access public presence and comment in cases where you are meeting telephonically?”

Jahr also raised the specter of additional costs associated with opening meetings to the public, although he could not say what would generate those costs or how high they might go.

The judicial branch relies on dozens of subcommittees, working groups and task forces to hash out policies and recommendations on everything from the death penalty appeals process to construction priorities. By the time a proposal reaches the Judicial Council, any contentious issues have usually been settled in private meetings.

Asked earlier this year about opening more meetings to the public, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she was open to the idea as long as it didn’t generate additional costs or “chill” discussion among participants.

A budget conference committee may consider the Assembly’s judicial open-meeting proposal on Friday.

Alliance of California Judges
P.O. Box 2877, Sacramento, CA 95812