California budget raid jeopardizes Modesto courthouse construction funding

A decision by California lawmakers to raid $1.4 billion from the judicial system during the budget crisis is having a direct impact on a $267 million courthouse construction project in Modesto, according to the ModBee. With 23 courthouse construction projects in the works across the state, the budget raid could have implications well beyond the city borders.

As budgets have become constrained, courthouses have closed, forcing existing courthouses to renovate to accommodate the influx of new cases. Brandi Christensen, facilities support service manager for Stanislaus County Superior Court told the Bee, “We don’t have an inch to move. Our courtrooms are packed every day.”

In addition to lack of space, many courthouses have fallen into deep disrepair from age. In the case of the Modesto courthouse, the Bee reports, “The most modern part of the current courthouse — which houses the courtrooms — was built in 1960. The other half of the courthouse was built in 1871 and remodeled in 1939. The courthouse has no holding cells for inmates, who are kept in jury rooms before their court appearances.”

The Judicial Council of California’s Court Facilities Advisory Committee met on June 28th in San Francisco to go over courthouse construction funding, and found it is coming up short. Very short. The Council directed the staff to develop funding recommendations, in concert with  the Department of Finance, in advance of their next meeting August 4th.

We’ll continue to follow the story, and you can get caught up with full details at the full Modesto Bee article here.

Proposed California Bill May Be Life Line for Court Budget Cuts

As court funding continues its downward slide, one bit of good news for California courts is a potential policy reversal on rainy day funds. With the Great Recession, lawmakers were seeking every possible penny to pinch. As such, they limited the judicial system’s ability to squirrel away money in their rainy day fund when they came in under budget. The fund was limited to just one percent of their unspent dollars.

Courthouse News reports the policy has a good chance of changing during the new budget. They report, “The new bill now moving through the Assembly, AB 2458, would overturn that 2013 law and return to the previous status quo, allowing trial courts to keep a rainy-day fund for expenses over and above the day-to-day operation of the court, such as technology projects and emergencies.”

Court budgets have been slashed across the country, but California has seen a significant number of courthouses actually close.

The bill’s sponsor, Assembly Member Jay Olbernolte, is notably a Republican who says he’s seen first hand the effect courthouse closing can have on a community. Per the interview with Courthouse News:

“My first official act as mayor was to take a phone call from the presiding judge of the San Bernardino County court informing me that the courthouse in Big Bear Lake was to be closed. Barstow, Needles and Twin Peaks were also being closed,” he said in an interview. “Through the ensuing years I saw firsthand the impact that a lack of access to justice could have. That’s given me a deeper appreciation for what our courts do,” he said.

Read the full story at Courthouse News.

Cutbacks Still Leave California Courts Needing Judges

The deep budget cuts to California Courts have not gone away, and a Courthouse News story illustrates how the judicial system is trying to re-allocate judges to lessen impacts. The CN explains a recent Judicial Council debate on how much leeway the group should have in shifting judgeship around the state, a controversial issue in part because of impacts on local elections – the Golden State elects its trial judges, but incumbents seldom face real competition.

The CN backgrounds that “California’s trial courts are suffering from a shortage of about 270 judges, Judicial Council lobbyist Cory Jasperson told the Policy Coordination and Liaison Committee… meeting by phone, the committee debated whether to move forward with legislative language that would grant the council discretion to dole out vacant judgeships.

The report notes that “… while Gov. Jerry Brown has already supported allocating up to five vacant judgeships in his 2016-17 budget, his proposal hardly begins to make a dent in the need. Pushing for additional legislation, either as a trailer bill to be included in this year’s budget or as a separate bill, would go much further.”

Keep up with the judicial rationing here:

IVP Conference: CA Courts Filling With Out-of-State Cases

A recent conference hosted by the Independent Voter Project in California hit upon an issue we’ve been reporting on repeatedly here at CCM. California courts are filling with a backlog of out-of-state cases, as class action lawsuits fill the courts. This, in turn, is buckling the limited resources of the court system, leaving California residents either without nearby courts, or pushing their cases to the back of the line. 

The conference focused on business interests, specifically, but a recent blog they posted noted that businesses are being impacted, alongside residents:

“The fairly recent development of mass-action lawsuits conglomerate residents of multiple states into one lawsuit. Usually it is filed in California due to plaintiff-friendly court policies. Consequently, California courts are filling up with lawsuits where many plaintiffs are not CA residents and don’t receive adequate legal representation.”

Read more here.

2013 Budget Cuts Still Forcing Adjustments For Court Facilities

The Desert Dispatch newspaper reports that the supervising judge for San Bernardino County will implement a reorganizational plan that will expand services at the Barstow Courthouse in order to enable the Victorville Courthouse to take on more criminal cases. The report offers a reminder that “… budget cuts in 2013 shuttered courthouses in Barstow, Big Bear, Needles and Chino. A last-minute reprieve thanks to $1.2 million from state courts reserves allowed one courtroom to stay open in Barstow. The lone courtroom allowed traffic, landlord-tenant, small claims and domestic violence cases to continue to be heard three days a week.”
Reporter Mike Lamb writes about one impact of the change “… a state judiciary report that was released in August showed San Bernardino County kept more of its felony cases on the docket after 12 months than any other county in California during fiscal year 2012-13. The report showed that county courtrooms are dealing with massive caseloads.” Adjusting the civil caseload might help with that backlog.

Trial Court Operations Still Facing Budget Shortfalls

The state’s trial courts are facing diminished revenues from case filing fees and penalties, and that’s bringing some pressure on budget decisions. The Courthouse News explains that “… though Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget gives California trial courts $90.6 million in new funding, the state Judicial Council slashed $22.7 million across the board to address a shortfall in a critical fund for trial court operations…”
The CN also notes that “… the courts have seen diminished revenues from case filing fees and penalties for two fiscal years now. Brown’s budget included $66 million to compensate for that deficit, but the Trial Court Trust Fund is still short $22.7 million…  the council voted unanimously to take the money out of the $90.6 million before it is allocated to the courts.

One-Day Divorce Heralded As Court Innovation

The Associated Press is profiling a California judge as an innovator for his one-day divorce process, a program inspired in some measure by $1 billion in court budget cuts during the recession. The AP notes that “… layoffs sapped employee morale, 52 courthouses closed across the state and the trying experience of going to court has become more tedious with longer lines, frustrating hearing delays and time-consuming waits on the phone.”
“Against that backdrop,” says the AP,”recent innovations seem like baby steps, but they have made it simpler to serve jury duty, pay traffic fines or get a restraining order in some counties. Lawyers in some courts can now schedule hearings online, file motions over the web and get judge’s orders electronically before they leave court.”
See a reminder that the California budget cuts are the new normal here.

State Chief Justice Defends Admin Record

In the wake of that state auditor’s report questioning some $30 million in judicial branch spending Audit finds $30 million in ‘questionable’ court spending and salaries, California’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is going on the defensive. In a relatively rare SoCal TV interview with Los Angeles NBC affiliate Channel 4.
The TV setup notes that “… Cantil-Sakauye has been criticized by a group of lower-court judges for not doing enough to send resources to Superior Courts in the state’s 58 counties. The Alliance of California Judges seized on a recent audit which questioned nearly $30 million in court staff spending. The audit noted the use of 66 state cars by staff, that some court administrators made more than the governor and had offices in three cities instead of one.” She counters by noting cutbacks and need for multiple offices to meet the needs of different sections of the state. See the interview here: CA Chief Justice on State of Courts

Gov. Adds Cash For Courts


Gov. Jerry Brown – Photo:

It seems Gov. Jerry Brown is increasing California judicial branch funding this year, not only moving closer to pre-recession levels but also singling our specific areas – like employee benefits – to illustrate where the money should go. The Mercury-News explains that “… the governor’s 2015-16 budget bumps the state court system’s budget from last year’s $3.29 billion to $3.47 billion, with most of that increase headed to the 58 trial courts around California hit hardest by past cutbacks. Courts in counties across the state, including Bay Area systems in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties, have been forced to reduce public hours, lay off employees and shutter remote courthouses as a result of prior cuts that at one point exceeded $1 billion over several years. Under the governor’s budget, the judiciary’s budget would inch closer to the $3.7 billion allocated in 2007-08. In fact, with the use of trial court reserve money required under previous budgets, the governor’s staff pegs spending on the judicial branch at about $3.7 billion in the 2015-16 fiscal year.
Read the story here.

Court Admin. Salaries Under Fire With Audit

California’s court management blew $30 million over four years on what a state audit is calling “questionable” expenses and salaries. The audit is sure to become an issue as the state heads into budget season with court leadership seeking to replace some $1 billion of recent-years cuts.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (Photo: California Courts)

The audit was ordered by the state Legislature as part of the back-and-forth with court supporters who seek more funding. Some lawmakers have argued that the court administrators are not taking care of the purse strings. The debate has at least brought a re-branding: the Judicial Council, the policymaking arm of the courts, was previously called the Administrative Office of the Courts, or the AOC.
The Los Angeles Times reflected the tone of how the report is being received, reporting that “… auditors found the administrative office paid eight of its nine office directors more than $179,000 a year, which is higher than the salary for the governor and his top administration staff” and that a manager “… hired three months ago to run the San Francisco-based 800-employee agency, is the top earner, witan annual salary of $227,000. The governor earns $177,000 a year, less than the justices he appoints to serve on the California Supreme Court and less than is earned by some county court administrators.”