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.

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:

Judge: 2-Year Waits Triple In Budget-Cut Courts

The number of Los Angeles County civil cases facing delays of more than two years has tripled in the wake of budget cuts, according to Carolyn Kuhl, Los Angeles Superior Court’s presiding judge, She also tells NPR station KQED that “.. L.A. made 10 percent across-the-board cuts to court services in 2012, but it wasn’t enough. So the next year, they made further cuts. In all, 79 courtrooms were shuttered, limiting where people can contest traffic tickets or adjudicate small claims cases. The court has also cut mediation services and eliminated court reporters in civil cases.”

Kuhl noted that “… the setbacks are especially disheartening because she and others have worked for decades to shorten the amount of time it takes to resolve civil cases… and to see those gains essentially be lost — as we now have delays such that the number of cases pending over two years has tripled — is very discouraging.”

The judge’s comments are part of increased media coverage as the state budget process nears its annual decision-making point. Read the story here.

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.

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.”

Civil Costs Added To Double-Dip Red Light Ticket

Los Angeles TV station NBC4 is reporting about a “double-dip” situation involving civil assessments and those red light cameras. The problem focuses on what happens when the owner of the car in the photo is not driving the car. One family paid the $500 fine, but also noted that the owner was not driving. On the back, they said who was – and that driver got a second fine.
“… nearly 3 months after paying the ticket [the driver] received a letter from the court stating ‘as a result of your failure to appear’ … a civil assessment of $300 was added. Then this: “The court will refer this citation to a collection agency.”
In response to the NBC4 I-Team’s questions, the station said, the court is re-instating the original citation for Kim, ending the collections process and waiving the $300 fee for failure to appear. The courts are refunding $500 to the Kellys, and they’ve waived $300 in late fees for Kim. For those unable to interest a television news team in helping, there is some advice. If you get one of those tickets, and the owner of the car was not driving, just indicate that and send the document in – leave it to the courts to tell who was driving.

Award-Winning Courthouse Closes After Just 4 Years

Just four years after its opened amid much fanfare, one of California’s most scenic courthouses has become another victim of the state’s justice rationing, slated to close Nov. 3. A Plumas County News report quotes Plumas Superior Court Executive Officer Deborah Norrie saying that “… the trial courts have lost a billion dollars (in funding) in the last few years. The Plumas court has taken its fair share of hits.”
Known for its award winning design, Portola Courthouse is facing closure.

Known for its award winning design, Portola Courthouse is facing closure.

Plumas County, a Sierra Nevada community located near the Nevada border in northwestern California, has now lost three of its four court facilities, the newspaper noted, with the Greenville court closing in 2012 and Chester’s court closing last year. All cases in Plumas County will now be processed and heard at the Quincy courthouse, but with reduced court hours. The paper reported that, beginning Nov. 3, the court will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Phones will be answered from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Portola courthouse won design awards and looks more like a ski area entrance than a traditional court building. It is owned by the state judicial system and it remains unclear what, if anything, will be done with the 6,500 square foot building. Local judges say they hope it reopens as a courthouse when funding is restored.

Court Budget Group Punts On Alternative Allocation

Despite a looming $22.7 million revenue shortfall, the state’s Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee, or TCBAC, will decline to offer an “alternative recommendation” on how funds are allocated to California courts, according to The Courthouse News Service. The CN report adds that “… deftly bypassed the option to revisit the original four allocation options. Instead, members narrowed their focus to the two pro-rata 2014-15 base allocation scenarios. Adoption of the second scenario means a 2 percent increase for San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Siskiyou, Stanislaus, Tehama, and Tulare counties over the first scenario.”

The news service also noted that “… the meeting was only the second afforded public access after Gov. Brown axed a provision initiated by the state Legislature earlier this year to open up all of the council’s advisory committee and subcommittee meetings.”

Read more here: Courthouse News Service

L.A. Looks To Bypass Courts For Low-Level Crimes

Worried that charging people with “lower level” crimes like public urination is more trouble than it’s worth in a crowded court system, Los Angeles officials are planning to bypass judges and create an alternative justice system for dozens of infractions. the L.A. Register newspaper reports that the Administrative Code Enforcement, or ACE, program would be rolled out first with Los Angeles Animal Services and Police Department and “.. won’t replace the city’s current system of being able to charge people with a misdemeanor or infraction in criminal court. But the program will give police the option of issuing an administrative ticket for low-level offenses, LAPD told a committee earlier this week.”

Some examples given were tampering with garbage, public urination and defecation, and throwing trash into the L.A. River. The Register says that “… citations would range from $250 for the first violation to $1,000 for a third offense.. The city expects to net $468,000 in the first year, according to an analysis prepared in June by the City Attorney’s Office.”

The system as explained does not allow those cited access to actual courts, but only an administrative review. Read the story here: More tickets? ACE is a new way to punish minor crimes