Strange Days Loom As Budget Deadlines Near, Courts Still Face Crisis

It remains quiet – too quiet! – on the media front as the California courts budget crisis gets eclipsed by high-profile moves to move or release prison inmates and other high-profile issues. As we’ve noted before, one challenge facing civil courts is that nobody knows what they’ve got until its gone, and for many the access to family law and other justice services is going, going…

The public part of the state budget debates is held during the “June gloom” season because the state constitution “requires” the legislature to pass the budget by June 15, a deadline that has been seldom met (we went 23 of 24 years missing it, but passed it on time last year), and never with any real consequence. As a budget expert with Gov. Schwarzenegger famously put it:  “If you do something bad and you never get punished for it, then you don’t see it as being bad anymore.”
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Shifting Costs, Releasing Prisoners Helps Balance a Budget

Here are a couple of ways the state of California is reaching that “balanced budget” we hear so much about: cutting courts and shifting prison populations to local jails. The website has a well-sourced story out of San Mateo that illustrates how the problems go hand in hand, although typically we’re seeing the civil courts take more cuts than the criminal courts – likely because plenty of constitutional guarantees dominate criminal cases.
San Mateo is a microcosm of what is happening throughout the state, San Mateo Presiding Judge Robert Foiles told the website. They also noted a scary fact from that recent survey of trial courts for the state Judicial Council, which administers the courts: 11 of the 48 counties that responded reported they weren’t able to process domestic violence temporary restraining orders on the same day they’re filed.
Here’s the background for San Mateo: Over the past five years, trial courts throughout the state have had their budgets slashed by about $1 billion because of the state’s fiscal crisis. Before the cuts San Mateo County had $12 million in reserve. They are now down to $1.2 million. The governor’s proposed budget for this year would mean another $4.5 million budget shortfall. The court has cut more than 30 percent of its workforce. If the Governor’s proposed budget passes, they will have to shutter the central courthouse and reduce the South San Francisco courthouse to two judges – who will only hear the most serious cases.
We perhaps treat civil and criminal courts as different worlds, and this report shows the interaction. Read it here.  

Profile of Court Fees Increases Amid Budget Crisis

Just in time for the increasing discussion of special court fees, like the ones for accessing public documents that is effectively shelved for the time being, a Sacramento Bee story outlines that any “temporary” fees tend to become permanent, and cites a court fee as the oldest example.
Jim Sanders, who wrote the Bee report, says that 13 of of 21 “temporary” fees received extensions, cumulatively raising more than $70 million annually for programs ranging from a missing persons database to an effort to fight auto insurance fraud.” He then notes that “… perhaps the oddest Capitol trail left by a single fee involved five bills over the past decade to raise millions for California courts. What is now a $40 court fee tacked onto all criminal convictions, including traffic violations, began as a $20 charge in 2003. It later was raised to $30, then to $40, then expiration dates were eliminated, leaving the charge permanent.”

Allowed uses also shift. That court fee, for example, was initially earmarked for security but can now be used for administration. It will be an important issue in the upcoming crunch-time debates over what funding the legislature actually finds to address the growing courts crisis.

Read the full story here.

Bay Area Federal Courthouses Closing On Some Fridays

Those justice system budget hits just keep on coming, and in addition to state cuts we’re seeing federal impacts from Washington’s budget “sequester.” The San Jose Mercury News is reporting that “… for the first time in decades, the Bay Area’s federal courthouses in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose will shut their doors for a day each month to save money.” The report says that San Francisco and San Jose federal courts will close the first Friday of each month until September, while the Oakland branch will do the same on the first Monday of the month… the Northern California federal court system also will lock its Eureka satellite branch on the same Fridays.
The paper noted that “Bay Area courts are not alone in their budget misery. Colorado’s federal courts are taking the same step. The Los Angeles federal courts are closing clerks’ offices for seven Fridays through August, while the Utah courts cut the number of criminal matters heard each day.”
Read the story here

Doing The Math, Losers Take Note Of New Court Funding Scheme

An Associated Press story getting wide statewide play breaks down the newly proposed courts funding as “… a new formula for distributing more than $1 billion in state funding for California’s 58 trial courts that would take money from some court systems and give it to rural and fast-growing counties such as Riverside and San Bernardino.”
While that may be over simplification, it does illustrate that the state is about to pick winners and losers in courts funding, which could have some jurisdictions focusing on the new allotments instead of the big-picture courts funding. For example, San Bernardino has been the poster county for rationing justice, and it is among the “winners” in the new formula. Losers? Well, the AP says that “… Santa Clara County would be the biggest loser in the San Francisco Bay Area, absorbing more than $10 million in cuts in the next five years, the San Jose Mercury News reported.”
You can read the AP report, via The Fresno Bee, here.