Give more money to the Judicial Council for Court Construction? Have we gone mad in Sacramento?

Posted on September 5, 2019

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Below is a judicial branch synopsis from a legislative analysis of infrastructure needs for the state.

I think it is prudent to point out that the judicial council only feigns adhesion to fraud, waste and abuse laws and actually worked aggressively to weaken the laws pertaining to judicial branch whistleblowers. They did this by creating an unnavigable process within ill-equipped entities and assigned those entities tasks that they must conduct in order for any claim to move forward, creating multiple opportunities for claims to die on the vine.

During the period known as the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, The Judicial Council did not seek out even one dollar of the money available for shovel-ready projects because it would have required them to adhere to federal waste, fraud and abuse laws. There was lots of talk about available funds from the feds at the AOC and even gathering of lists of potential ARRA-funded projects. The bottom line is that the Judicial Council could have had billions of shovel ready projects paid for by the feds and they consciously chose not to lift a finger because a few very senior people in the organization did not want to be subject to the law. They wanted to benefit from their various kickback schemes and not be held accountable to anyone. And benefit they did.

Once it became apparent that fraud, waste, and abuse was unenforced guidance within judicial council offices and guidance to trial courts, things took off and people looked the other way as unlicensed contractors from the Oregon border to the Mexican border took over court facilities maintenance that came with shake the conscience price tags, like a grand to empty an ash tray in front of a building.

Frustrated with the AOC, only one courthouse in Hanford would have their county seek ARRA funds to get a project completed.

The reason we bring this up now is that the legislature has experienced a pretty large turnover since these problems, many illustrated in the pages of this blog and over at the original AOC watcher that were documented. We agree with the below synopsis with a few clarifications.

The last time the judicial council created an immediate and critical needs list for court facilities, it was re-ordered several times AFTER there was money made available, so projects that were not even on the list jumped to the immediate needs list and were built first. One of those facilities that cost millions is being rented out to a city after being shuttered by the Judicial council only a few years after it was built. Another has an issue with rain pouring into the structure when it rains. And it joins a long list of other buildings that need new roofs.  The glorious white elephant known as the Long Beach Courthouse would jump the list and result in the cancellation of dozens of other immediate and critical needs projects, while the council tried to bamboozle new legislators that they were the ones who agreed to pay the million dollar plus per month rent – and that didn’t fly.

Recently, the legislature stated that they are seeking an additional immediate and critical needs list from the Judicial Council that will turn out to be as worthless as the paper it is printed on, less specific implementing language in the legislation bar a re-order of the list and re-allocation of funds by the council.

But if the legislature were really serious about building courthouses, they would move the entire portfolio over to the department of general services that maintain their portfolio with little deferred maintenance and can follow the court construction guide written by the councils’ staff.

By moving everything over to DGS and not being able to alter the list, quite a few courts would benefit. If the legislature does not take this action, we see another white elephant or two hammering on judicial branch budgets for years to come, all the while some fortunate people on the council and in their staff offices make out like bandits when the kickback schemes resume.

 

 

Judicial Branch

The California Constitution vests the state’s judicial power in the Supreme Court, the Courts of Appeal, and the Trial Courts. The Supreme Court and the six Courts of Appeals are entirely state–supported. The Trial Court Funding program provides state funds (above a fixed county share) for support of the state’s 58 trial courts. The Judicial Council serves as the administrative body of the judicial system, with the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) as its staff. In total, the Judicial Branch is responsible for approximately 19 million square feet of facility space. The vast majority of this space is dedicated to the trial courts, which consist of 532 facilities throughout the state.

State Assumes Responsibility For Trial Court Facilities

Historically, counties funded the operation, maintenance, and construction of trial court facilities. However, beginning in 1997, the Legislature adopted a series of statutory changes that shifted the responsibility for trial court funding, employees, and facilities from counties to the state. Below, we discuss the two major pieces of legislation that were enacted related to trial court facilities.

Chapter 1082, Statutes of 2002 (SB 1732, Escutia). In 2002, the Legislature adopted Chapter 1082 (commonly referred to as the “Trial Court Facilities Act of 2002”), which authorized the transfer of title and all management responsibility for most court facilities from the counties to the state on a building–by–building basis. (This transfer was completed in December 2009.) The legislation also requires counties to make payments to the state for the maintenance of trial court facilities based on the amounts counties historically spent for this purpose. The Judicial Council was given the responsibility for the maintenance and renovation of the transferred trial court facilities, as well as for the design and construction of new facilities. Additionally, the legislation increases various criminal and civil fines and fees to finance the construction of $1.5 billion in trial court facility projects.

Chapter 311, Statutes of 2008 (SB 1407, Perata). In 2008, the Legislature approved another significant increase in spending on trial court facilities with the passage of Chapter 311. This particular legislation authorizes lease–revenue bonds to finance 41 “immediate and critical” trial court projects totaling roughly $5 billion. Rather than being supported with the General Fund, however, the legislation authorizes additional increases in criminal and civil fines and fees to provide revenue for the debt service on the lease–revenue bonds. The legislation provides the Judicial Council with substantial discretion to choose the list of projects that would be classified as immediate and critical and constructed. Subsequently, Chapter 10, Statutes of 2009 (SBX2 12, Steinberg), gives the Judicial Council further discretion by authorizing the continuous appropriation of funds for acquiring land and developing preliminary plans for the 41 projects. As part of the 2011–12 budget package, however, the Legislature transferred $310 million in court construction funds to the General Fund, which most likely will delay most of the projects authorized in Chapter 311 by up to a year.

Projected Increase in Spending on Courts Infrastructure. As a result of the two pieces of legislation discussed above, state spending on infrastructure for the courts is projected to significantly increase in the coming years. Assuming projects resume after the one–year delay, nearly all of the projects supported by Chapters 1082 and 311 are projected to be in the design or construction process in 2013–14. This would result in expenditures on court facilities of more than $2 billion at that time and completion of all projects by 2017–18. The annual debt service for the lease–revenue bonds used to construct the total package of projects will reach about $390 million.

Major Drivers of Court Infrastructure Spending

In general, court infrastructure spending is largely driven by the following factors:

  • Security and Size. In order to ensure sufficient safety and security, the AOC prefers that court buildings have separate circulation areas that allow court staff, the public, and in–custody individuals appearing in court to remain separate from each other. However, many of the existing court facilities lack these separate circulation areas. In addition, increased space for public areas of courthouses (such as jury rooms) and for the offices of judges and court employees can also drive court construction needs.
  • Seismic Safety and Age. Roughly 80 percent of the state’s trial court facilities were built before the adoption of various seismic codes in 1988. As a result, some of these facilities do not meet current building standards and could prove to be a hazard in an earthquake. In addition, many court facilities are more than 30 years old and require significant repairs that go beyond routine maintenance work.
  • Workload Changes and Program Improvements. Increases in the number of judgeships and related court staff resulting from additional workload can also drive court infrastructure needs. In addition, new programs sponsored by the courts can change the type of facilities courts need. For example, an increase in the number of self–represented litigants has increased the need for space for Self Help Centers in court facilities.

Issue for Legislative Consideration—Courts

Focus on Highest Priority Projects. The Judicial Council classifies projects as an “immediate need” (the highest ranking need–level) or “critical need” (the second highest ranking need–level). Based on the limited funds authorized in Chapter 311, the Judicial Council is planning to move forward on some of the immediate need projects and many critical need projects. In other words, the Judicial Council has chosen to hold off on a number of immediate need projects in order to proceed with lower–priority projects. Given the limited resources available for court construction, however, we believe it makes sense to prioritize the immediate need projects.

Consider Delaying Lower Priority Projects. Because some of the fine and fee revenue currently dedicated to court construction could be further redirected to help address the state’s budget shortfall, the Legislature may wish to consider holding off on the critical need projects at this time. We estimate that funding only immediate need projects—including those not currently being pursued by the Judicial Council—would free up tens of millions of dollars in annual debt–service payments that could be used to offset General Fund costs in other areas based on legislative priorities.