Last week, the Judicial Council voted unanimously to deny emergency funding to the Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Mono Superior Courts. All three counties had bought into the Council’s predictions of a more generous judicial branch budget; now they find themselves running on empty. Del Norte was looking for $300,000, Mono for $82,000, and Siskiyou for just $72,000. Siskiyou was asking to get back nothing more than the money it had contributed to the statewide reserve. Maria Dinzeo’s article from Courthouse News lays out the details. In voting to deny the funds, Council member Kenneth So of San Diego said, “A lot of courts are in the position of those three counties. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we have this rule. And the rule is there needs to be a demonstrated, unavoidable funding shortage.”
Without the emergency money, more court employees are going to lose their jobs or be furloughed, and more courts will have to reduce their hours of service. We urge you to read another article that Maria Dinzeo wrote for Courthouse News, this one on the alarming statewide trend toward whittling down courtroom hours for budget reasons.
Could the Council possibly make cuts to other programs in order to come up with the $454,000 to help out these three rural counties?
A quick look at the Judicial Council’s vendor payments for the first half of 2014 suggests a number of areas in which the Council can save some money. The Council spent over $7 million for “Consultants-Information Systems.” The Council also paid outside law firms over $1.5 million for “Legal Services-Litigation.” The California Highway Patrol got over $2.4 million for security in just the first half of this year—including security for the Commission on Judicial Performance. Surely our leaders could find $454,000 in there somewhere to keep rural courtrooms open.
Maybe the Council can shed some of its staff members rather than requiring the trial courts to lay off even more of theirs. According to its latest set of staffing metrics, the Council employs the equivalent of 164 full-time employees in Information Technology alone, including 54 contractors. CJER has the equivalent of 44 full-time staffers. In fact, while courts have continued to cut staffing, the number of Judicial Council full-time employee positions increased from 779 in March to 798 in September.
A review of the Judicial Council’s Supplementary Schedule of Operating Expenses and Equipment reveals even more potential savings. The Council estimates that in this fiscal year, it will spend over $2 million for in-state travel; over $1.5 million for “communications”; over $16.5 million for outside consultants and “professional services.”
The Council did vote to give $509,000 to Kings County to help it replace its case management system. Why did Kings get the money while the other three counties didn’t? According to the Council, only Kings demonstrated an “unavoidable funding shortfall.” That’s ironic. This particular funding shortfall actually could have been avoided—had the Council’s half-billion-dollar CCMS project actually worked.
So this is what state funding has reduced us to. We are treated to the spectacle of trial court officials, hats in hand, asking to get their own money back, only to get nickel-and-dimed by an unrepresentative Judicial Council.
After she heard the pleas of the executive officers from the rejected counties, the Chief Justice felt moved to say: “This is exactly the reason why Judicial Council is a statewide policy-making body and that we are not built and structured like the Legislature with representatives who come from districts. . . . It is essential that the branch speak unified [sic] about funding the judiciary as a branch.” You can hear the audio of her remarks here.
We see it differently. First, the Judicial Council is not a statewide policy-making body for the courts; it’s a statewide policy-recommending body for the courts. It says so right in the California Constitution, at Article VI, § 6. Second, it is exactly because the Judicial Council is an unrepresentative institution that it has failed as an oversight body. And it is precisely because it has failed as an oversight body that it has no credibility with the Governor and the Legislature.
Our message is simple. Democratize the Council. Cut the Judicial Council staff. Fund the courts.
Very Truly Yours,
Directors, Alliance of California Judges