Exchanging the Gavel for an Axe

Jon Streeter, State Bar President addresses April budget protests

[UPDATED] The judiciary’s response to the $544 million in new  budget cuts to the California courts produced words like, “grim”, “staggering” and “shocking” during a special session of the courts’ administrative body.

The governor’s May budget revision puts the latest cut for fiscal year 2012-13 on top of $653 million in cuts over the last four years.

Through Ana Matosantos, director of the Dept. of Finance, the governor suggested the courts could weather the pain by dipping into the $541 million they have in reserves for the  rainy day that has now arrived.  Matosantos says the judiciary could spend $300 million from reserves and cut $240 million by halting up to 38 court construction projects and use that money for day-to-day court operations.

“We see that the trial courts have substantial reserves that we think are available to help us achieve some general fund savings while also being able to protect court operations,” Matosantos said.

In addition to the halt in court construction and spending of reserves, she said court employees should increase their contributions to the pension system from 5 percent to between 8 and 11 percent, to match other state workers, a savings to the state of $4 million.

The most radical alteration in spending was not the cuts, however, but the proposed change in the structure of reserving funds.  The governor wants do away with county-by-county reserve funds and replace them with a statewide court reserve of 3 percent.  It would be allocated to needy courts by the Judicial Council based on uniform criteria.

And the governor isn’t waiting around.  He wants to see it implemented by July 1.

That plan didn’t sit well with some county presiding judges who have been using reserves to step down court staff size and retrench in an planned manner, rather than imposing wholesale cuts.

Plenty of speakers suggested this change in the reserves structure would penalize counties that cut costs, saved money and set aside a reserve, while rewarding courts that spent all the money and now have a new means of applying for more.

Judge Robert Trentacosta, of Orange County, pointed out his county has reduced staff from 1,860 to 1,600 people in anticipation of budget cuts and has gone completely paperless in civil and family law courts.  Tickets are paid online, managers have been cut and the courts are collecting more fines.

Yet they will still spend $8.7 million from the court’s reserve fund, he said.  Without that reserve the three-year phased-in cutbacks will all come at once creating a huge burden on the public.

“This can’t happen in one year without furloughs and court closures,” he said.

Other courts have been relying on the reserves for basic court operations for several years.

Thursday’s discussion, without any decisions, came in a four-hour special session of the Judicial Council in Sacramento to air concerns about the impact of the cuts.  Cantil-Sakauye said she would appoint a small band of negotiators to be ready to meet with lawmakers any time of the day or night as they decide what to do about the proposed budget.

Judge Mary Ann O’Malley said, “Today I am almost numb.  All the hard work to educate people about these cuts; I can’t help thinking it was falling on deaf ears.”

Judge Steve White, of Sacramento and one of the leaders of an insurgent group of disgruntled judges called the Alliance of California Judges,  said the Judicial Council should impose severe cuts on the Administrative Office of the Courts, “at least 75 percent,” he said.

“Every dollar spent on the AOC is a dollar not spent on the trial courts,” he said.

Jody Patel, interim administrative director for the AOC, told the panel her office will see a workforce reduction of 180 employees by June 2012.  The AOC budget of $112 million has been cut 12 percent this fiscal year, on top of 18 percent cuts over the last four years.

One thing is clear from the public will soon get a much better picture of just how bad things have gotten in the judicial branch.  There will be longer lines to pay traffic tickets in some counties, months-long waits for a free courtroom and staff to hear cases, according to hearing testimony.

Without a revision to the court budget, the public may begin seeing more closed courtroom doors and longer lines for basic services soon.

Photo:  State Bar President Jon Streeter addresses a crowd estimated at 500 people on the steps of San Francisco City Hall on April 18.
Photos by Mathew Sumner

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