Brown Budget Targets Employee Pensions

Court-community reviews of Gov. Brown’s new budget are mixed, with state Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye terming it “encouraging” in a statement but labor advocates worried about plans to increase court employees contributions to their pensions. Meanwhile, along with a $60 million increase from his previous plans, Gov. Brown is framing the budget as a two-year process, meaning some real decisions might come after his Nov. re-election bid.
CCM staff photo

CCM staff photo

Discussions are no doubt being held to figure out what the next four weeks will bring. But the Contra Costa Times is among those noting lawmaker support for more courts funding, reporting that “… the chief justice had backing from state legislators, who recently proposed restoring more than $200 million in court funding in the upcoming budget year. Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, and the judiciary committee chairman, said Brown’s courts budget is still ‘far short’ of the hundreds of millions of dollars it needs to handle its caseloads and keep courthouses open and running.”
Missing from the discussion so far: re-opening any of the closed courts or re-hiring any of the nearly 4,000 court workrs laid off over the past few years.

Top Clerk Says Cuts May Hinder Cost-Saving Efforts

Ironically, recent budget-cutting staff reductions may actually hinder efforts to save money by shifting to e-filing or other programs, according to Contra Costa Presiding Judge Barry Goods. In a story announcing a new head clerk, Judge Good noted that “… given our limited resources, and the uncertainty of next year’s budget situation, it’s a question of balancing the expense of e-filing versus other expenses.”
Judge Goode was quoted in The Courthouse News coverage of Stephen Nash, who was finance director for the Administrative Office of the Courts for four years and is headed back to the Bay Area to become head administrator for the Contra Costa Superior Court.
The report also noted that an upcoming decision on court reserve funds will likely impact how the justice system is operated. Programs like e-filing are going to fall by the wayside, says Judge Goode, if reserves cannot be counted on to help pay costs. Read the Courthouse News report here.

Paper Notes $93 Million Question For Trial Courts

The Desert Dispatch newspaper in San Bernardino County is among few outlets noting that the California Judicial Council will decide THIS WEEK where to allocate up to $93 million of “special funds” to support trial courts. Meeting in San Francisco starting Thursday, that group will evaluate recommendations from yet another committee, the “Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee.”
Citing the “state judiciary,” the Desert Dispatch says “… the two special funds provide primary support to self help centers, technology support and initiatives, the civil litigation program, education of judges and court staff and reimbursement for other court costs.” To some, especially to labor leaders, that seems like money that is not going directly to save courthouse jobs – an issue that links back to the state budget mandate for some budget increases to target jobs and keeping courthouses open.
To read more, check out the story here.

‘System Failure’ Closes ‘Public’ Court Budget Meeting

State officials are blaming a “systems failure” for loss of an audiocast feed that effectively shut unions and others out of a key budget-allocation meeting this week. The failure took on added impact, union leadership noted, because they had not received timely notice about the meeting and were relying on the audio. While the Administrative Office of the Courts set up a conference line for some of the budget committee members, there were not enough lines for labor officials and even legislative aides who wanted to hear about how court money is being divided.
The Courthouse News quoted Michelle Castro with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) saying that  “… we have a vested interest in trial court funding; how the funds get distributed and what purposes they are establishing priorities around,” Michelle Castro with the SEIU said in an interview. “We’re at a very critical juncture in the trial courts. We are going through extreme amounts of cuts on the backs of court workers.”
At issue are deliberations of a special advisory committee for trial court budgets that approved roughly $72 million for programs supporting the trial courts and technology projects. The Courthouse News reported that the “… allocations included $18 million to maintain interim versions of the now-defunct Court Case Management System and the Arizona server that hosts it.” That’s bound to raise eyebrows because the state legislature approved a last-minute $60 million for trail courts with the direction it be used to save jobs and keep courts open – there has been a concern that money might be directly spent on other areas or diverted to replace money that would have otherwise gone for those purposes. 
     “Our big issue is the Legislature said this $60 million was directly supposed to go to making sure the court doors were open. Is that really happening?” said a union official in the Courthouse News story. Read more here.

Transit Strike Underscores Problems With Court Closures: What Happens When Access Goes Away?

Lots of issues surface during a transit strike like this week’s BART shutdown in San Francisco. Let’s add one more: By “consolidating” what were community courts, the courts – especially the Los Angeles Superior Court — has made access to justice much more dependent on mass transit, and nobody has mentioned what happens when you can’t make court because of problems with transit, whether that is a strike or just some random breakdown. Does somebody face a bench warrant because a bus overheats?
Granted, even community courts faced similar challenges. But let’s note that, as The Los Angeles Times reported back in March, “… in the 21-page [lawsuit] filing, the organizations said the reduction in the number of courthouses hearing such cases from 26 to five throughout the county will create difficulties for low-income tenants and people with disabilities fighting eviction… some people will have to travel up to 32 miles to litigate their cases, court officials have said. The trips ‘to the courthouse for these tenants will require numerous transfers and travel to unfamiliar areas and will be prohibitively difficult and expensive,’ the lawsuit states.”
So the best-case for those using public transit is a living hell. But we need to address how the courts handle lack of transit, and the BART strike is the first large-scale example since the rationing of justice began for real last week. It’s a good time to revisit the lawsuit coverage, see L.A.Times.
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