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:

Judges Oppose Proposed Budget Oversight

Judges and court clerks on the Judicial Council’s Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee are opposing a proposed rule change “… that would give a different council committee the authority to go back and review how the council and its staff spent judiciary funds on behalf of the courts,” the Courthouse News Service (CNS) is reporting.
In a detailed story, the CNS quotes a San Luis Obispo judge complaining that the rule change would be “… a complete diminution of the authority of” the existing committee while adding that “… this [judicial] branch has a history of problems with credibility and transparency. I think we’ve worked on that, but this goes backwards. It reduces transparency.”
The rule change comes in response to a harsh state audit that questioned how the courts spend money and create transparent decision-making.
Read the CNS story here.

Budget Deadline Punts On Court Funding

How to handle an election-year funding issue involving the labor-intensive courts system? First, expand it to a “two-year” plan to avoid the hard questions in the election cycle and then tie any increases to “reforms” to be identified later. As this weekend’s constitutionally mandated June 15 California budget deadline expires, that’s the status of hard-hit courts in Gov. Brown’s budget. Not always noted is that one of the ways to “tighten operating costs” is increasing the amount workers pay into their pension funds.
The Courthouse News is a go-to source for following the issue, especially with the focus on Los Angeles, home of the nation’s largest trial court where cutbacks have closed courthouses and forced long journeys to court.
For this years budget, The Courthouse News reports that “… Department of Finance Director Michael Cohen said the $160 million for the courts is part of a two-year strategy to stabilize court funding while the Judicial Council and the chief justice look for ways to tighten operating costs. Most of the additional funds will go toward paying court-employee pensions and benefits and backfilling a shortfall in filing-fee revenue.”

‘King George’ Book Keeps Quotes Coming

Reports from the “King George” book signings keep making the rounds, including comments from a Berkley event where retired Los Angeles County Judge Charles Horan was quoted as saying “[Former Chief Justice Ronald M. George) never had enough power… I don’t know of a judge who hasn’t referred to him as King George. That was standard.”

The Courthouse News reports that “… while in California’s top judicial post, George was a principal force behind the centralization of California’s trial courts. Legislation in 1997 gave control of court rules and the roughly $3 billion court budget to California’s Judicial Council, where the chief justice chairs the meetings, votes and appoints 14 of the 21 voting members. The legislation also resulted in a huge growth in the personnel and power of the central court bureaucracy, where the chief justice is the staff’s ultimate boss.”

Judge George’s book, “Chief: The Quest for Justice in California,” has placed him back into the spotlight. At a recent event at the UC Berkeley campus, the CN reported, he was “… surrounded by shelves of books and reading tables. A space had been cleared for about 40 guests that included the current Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the administrative office director of operations Curt Child and colleagues, lawyers and family members. Proceeds from the book are being donated to the school.”
Keep up with the legacy discussion here.

Judicial Council ‘Open Meetings’ Plan Draws Complaints

It turns out that good news about open committee meetings at the California Judicial Council comes with at least 17 strings attached. That’s how many exceptions there are, including for issues like “consideration of raw data,” that would evade public eyes whenever the judges like.
Reporters and newspaper advocates are among those commenting on the rules, with court officials stressing that this is just an early draft. Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told The Courthouse News that “… this is really open to wide discretion by whoever is on the committee… the exemptions they have created are very, very broad.”
The report also notes that “… the Judicial Council has a history of making decisions in closed-door committees followed by open Judicial Council sessions where the committee decisions are unanimously approved with little or no debate. Trial judges have said the council simply ‘rubber stamps’ the decisions made secretly by the committees.”
There’s more from Court House News 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.

Report: ‘Sad State’ Of Courts Will Boost Arbitration

While noting that non-court arbitration has often been seen as anti-consumer, a report in the member-run news organization Voice of San Diego lays out a good argument that ongoing court cuts will boost the practice. It also cites a recent study noting that formerly routine business collection practices can take up to a year, making it difficult to do business in counties hard-hit by court delays.
“Historically, we have seen that people who want to tilt the playing field in their favor will use delay in the trial courts as a justification for that,” one official told the website. “It has less resonance where cases get to trial efficiently and quickly as they had up until this latest round of five years of budget cuts.”
We have already heard that justice system administrators are urging a “settle the case” approach to ease strain on the diminished system, and certainly arbitration is part of that rationing strategy. This is a good, balanced look at how that’s starting to play out: Read Here

Law Firm Lists Some Effects From Ongoing Court Cutbacks

Until the mainstream media returns its spotlight on the cuts in civil court funding, which we can assume will happen once the failing system causes a high-profile incident, those involved in the justice community continue to note the demise. One of those is the L.A. law firm of Girardi-Keese, which uses its website to list “only a few” of the effects.
They list: In Stanislaus County, parents must wait 17 weeks for a family court mediator; more than 100 courtrooms have closed statewide, more than 50 in Los Angeles County alone; paying a traffic ticket in San Francisco can take four hours; more than 2,600 court employees have lost their jobs.
The firm of course calls for changes. See their efforts here.

Judicial Council Planning Open Meeting, Will Stream Talks

They will call it “historic” this week as the state’s Judicial Council holds an actual public meeting that’s even set for streaming over the Internet. The Monterey Herald is among those heralding the event, calling it “… part of a broader effort to increase transparency in the state’s Judicial Council, which sets policy for the country’s largest court system and has been criticized for keeping its committee meetings and even agendas out of the public eye. A ruling defining the extent of public access to the council’s meetings is expected in coming months.” Increased public involvement was thought by many to be part of a deal that increased courts funding, but Gov. Brown apparently removed such provisions from the final budget.
Like every other California county, Monterey has court issues. Along with operational cuts, the raid on construction funds meant that $49 million worth of improvements, including “… three courtrooms in a 47,200-square-foot building; moving Salinas Valley civil suits to the facility; and adding a self-help center, a jury assembly room, children’s waiting room, holding cells, an alternative dispute resolution center, attorney interview rooms and witness waiting rooms” were “delayed.”