California ACLU Sues Over Drivers License Suspension

Civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit against a Northern California superior court over its practice of suspending the driving licenses of people too poor to pay what advocates consider exorbitant fees for relatively minor offenses. The San Diego Union-Tribune explains that “… the complaint filed in Solano County Superior Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and others claims the court’s actions violate both the state’s vehicle code and due process protections… the legal action comes as lawmakers across the country are recognizing the impact of escalating fines and fees on impoverished people who either go into debt trying to pay off the ticket, or face suspension of critical driving privileges needed to work.”

The report notes that “… last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced an amnesty program for certain drivers, calling the traffic court system a ‘hellhole of desperation’ for the poor.” The process of shifting relatively minor offenses, the sort that do not rise to criminal charges that would require legal representation, into jail-worthy offenses has come under fire nationwide. Car-related offenses are one of the biggest issues.

Read the story here: ACLU sues Northern California court over license suspensions

California Still Dealing With Epic Failure On Case Management System

California Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking another $12.5 million to help several courts update case management software, a situation that dates back to an epic failure to upgrade the entire state. That project was terminated in 2012 amid what The Courthouse News in L.A. called “damning criticism from legislators, trial judges, court employees and union leaders as a costly and technologically unwieldy boondoggle.” But several counties actually started using the failing system, and they want to now upgrade with new vendors.

The tech debacle was front-and-center as massive budget cuts brought some of the more severe justice rationing to the Golden State. Read the latest at CN here:

CNS – Budget Revise Gives Calif. Courts $12.4 Million More

California Continues Judicial Rationing Game, Down About 270 Judges

California seems committed to continuing its judicial rationing shell game, with the state’s policy-setting Judicial Council’s “committee on legislation” voting to support a controversial law allowing the council to move five vacant judgeships from one county to another.

“It’s safe to say that the presiding judges statewide are divided on this issue,” Presiding Judge Brian McCabe of Merced County, who represents the state’s 58 presiding judges as chair of the council’s Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee, told The Courthouse News. He told the legislation committee that he had polled the state’s presiding judges and received some “very vehement” opposition to the idea. “There are a number of competing interests and concerns… the concern is this is a new arena we are stepping into, unprecedented, and it has people nervous.”

You think? California Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan in his 2016-17 budget package calls for moving five vacant judicial positions. The governor has been quoted saying that “… this will shift judgeships where the workload is highest without needing to increase the overall number of judges.” And Brown has been emphatic that these vacant judgeships need to be moved before he will agree to fund any new positions.

The CN notes how much of a drop in the judicial justice bucket this is, backgrounding that: “The understanding is that this will involve taking two open positions from Alameda County and three from Santa Clara County, and giving two to Riverside County, two to San Bernardino County and one to Kern County. All three south-state counties are in serious need, though nearly all judges agree that with the state down by about 270 positions every court is in desperate need of more judges.”

Read the CN’s excellent reporting here: CNS – Plan to Reallocate Judgeships Moves Ahead

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:

California Drought Brings Water-Rights Lawsuit

As reported on 6/19 in the Sacramento Bee: "Irrigation water runs along a dried-up ditch in the Sacramento Valley. | Jae C. Hong Associated Press file"

As reported on 6/19 in the Sacramento Bee: “Irrigation water runs along a dried-up ditch in the Sacramento Valley. | Jae C. Hong Associated Press file”

In what’s sure to become a milestone civil case, a group of water districts is suing California regulators over the state’s order prohibiting holders of some of the oldest water rights from pumping water out of rivers and streams. The Sacramento Bee newspaper explains that “… the lawsuit, filed in Stanislaus Superior Court, challenges the State Water Resources Control Board’s decision last week to ban diversions by 114 different rights holders in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river watersheds.”
The Bee adds that “… the affected groups are senior water rights holders. That means they’ve held the right to divert water since before 1914, when California established its rights system. Last week’s decision by the water board marked the first time since the drought of 1977 that any senior rights have been curtailed.”
Western state’s water laws are the stuff of legend, with some using “use it or lose it” policies that fall a bit short on conversation. Read more about the California situation here: Lawsuits challenge California’s drought plan

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.

State’s Chief Justice Seeks Emergency Rule On Tickets

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

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

You can add California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye to those supporting Gov. Brown’s push for reforming traffic tickets. The Chief Justice is asking the court’s governing body for an “emergency rule” to prevent courts from requiring drivers to pay traffic tickets before they can go to court to contest them.
The Los Angeles Times, saying the Chief Justice was “… weighing in on a troubled system” explains that “… her directive, issued Monday, comes as legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown tackle the issue of escalating traffic fines, fees and penalties that have led to driver’s license suspensions for 4.8 million Californians.” The situation has grabbed headlines around the nation as communities take hard looks at how they treat traffic citations, which have become a revenue stream for many places.
Read the L.A. Times story, reported from San Francisco, here.

California Eyes Statewide Amnesty Plan For Paying Off Traffic Tickets

California Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing for an amnesty program for residents who can’t afford to pay off their traffic ticket debt, which often includes a range of court-funding fees. The costs are largely blamed for some 4.8 million driver’s license suspensions since 2006. Such reforms are being discussed at the municipal level, but this would be a landmark move by the nation’s most populated state.
The Associated Press is reporting that “… the push by the Democratic governor spotlights concern among lawmakers and court administrators that California’s justice system is profiting off minorities and low-income residents. It’s a civil rights issue that has prompted discussions between the Brown administration and the U.S. Department of Justice, according to the governor’s spokesman, Evan Westrup.”
The AP notes that “… advocates for the poor have likened California’s problem to the police and municipal court structure in Ferguson, Missouri, which was criticized by the Justice Department as a revenue-generating machine following last year’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer.”
The report also breaks down how the traffic fines have become a revenue machine: “Traffic fines have been skyrocketing in California and courts have grown reliant on fees as a result of budget cuts during the recession. Twenty years ago, the fine for running a red light was $103. Today, it costs as much as $490 as the state has established add-on fees to support everything from court construction to emergency medical air transportation. The cost can jump to over $800 once a person fails to pay or misses a traffic court appearance.”
Read the story 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.

Obama Said To Be Planning Big Immigration Move

While early reports do not focus on the more than 300,000 recent Central American “border kids” awaiting deportation hearings, it does seem President Obama is making good on his immigration policy promises. The New York Times reports that “… part of Mr. Obama’s plan alone could affect as many as 3.3 million people who have been living in the United States illegally for at least five years, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration research organization in Washington. But the White House is also considering a stricter policy that would limit the benefits to people who have lived in the country for at least 10 years, or about 2.5 million people.”
The NYT added that “… extending protections to more undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, and to their parents, could affect an additional one million or more if they are included in the final plan that the president announces.” Immigration cases, thought by many to be criminal cases, are actually civil actions. For example, immigration “judges” are actually employees of the Justice Department.
But officials also said, according to the Times, that patrol agents and judges at the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and other federal law enforcement and judicial agencies, “will make clear that deportations should still proceed for convicted criminals, foreigners who pose national security risks and recent border crossers.”