California chief justice seeks more court money - Brian W. Jones

California chief justice seeks more court money

California's court system needs more money if it is going to recover from years of budget cuts that have forced courthouses to close and court employees to take unpaid days off, the state's chief justice said Monday.

"We have a lot of catching up to do and, we want to be a partner in fair and collaborative solutions, just like we were a partner in the last five years in reductions ...," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told a joint session of the Legislature.

It was her third annual "state of the judiciary" speech to lawmakers. She has been seeking to restore the courts' funding since she was sworn in more than three years ago by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

During the downturn, some trial courts cut their hours, closed courtrooms and furloughed or laid off employees. She said court closures mean more than two million Californians can no longer easily reach a local courthouse. Her office says 51 courthouses and 205 courtrooms have been closed, while 30 have reduced service hours.

"A one-way, three-hour trip to a courthouse can't be fair in anyone's book," she said. "We face astonishing and harmful delays in urgent family matters, in business contracts, in wrongful termination, discrimination cases, personal injury cases, across the board."

Kings County still is furloughing court employees 21 days each year, she said, while the Supreme Court, courts of appeal and Administrative Office of the Courts are using furloughs to cut costs.

Trial court funding peaked at $3.3 billion in the 2007-08 fiscal year before the recession devastated California's budgets, according to the state Department of Finance.

Gov. Jerry Brown's administration is proposing a $100 million increase for the courts for the fiscal year that begins July 1, which would boost the system's budget to $2.5 billion.

But several one-time funding sources were used to help fund the courts during the state's budget crisis, including increasing fees, shifting special funds and drawing down trial court reserves.

"Overall, we've been able to retain it at a fairly stable level" compared to other programs that lost much more of their state funds during the recession, said Finance Department spokesman H.S. Palmer.

Cantil-Sakauye said in January that trial and appellate courts need an additional $266 million to retain current services next fiscal year, $612 million to function at full capacity next year, and $1.2 billion over three years to make up for the recent budget cuts.

That means the Legislature would have to find an additional $166 million beyond the governor's proposed increase just to maintain current court programs, said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Senate budget committee.

Assemblyman Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer Sr., D-Los Angeles, chairman of the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Public Safety and the Courts, said in a statement that there are "many preconceived notions about the courts ... including that they are over staffed, underperforming, hiding funds and over spending." His request for an independent state audit was approved last week and will likely take six- to eight months to complete.