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Courts operate in ‘crisis mode’ under governor’s budget

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Patrick Kelly
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and State Bar President Patrick Kelly

California’s court system escaped additional operational cuts in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2013-14 budget, but that bit of good news was tempered by the reality of continued courtroom closures and reduced services across the state.

In a conference call with reporters last month, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said the budget news was on one level a relief. Brown did not eliminate trial court reserves earlier than expected, a proposal that court leaders said would have drained $200 million from operations.

Instead the governor proposed cutting $200 million from court construction projects. Also, because the court operations budget remained flat, the trial courts will be forced to move forward with planned courtroom closures and other reductions in service. The branch’s annual budget is $475 million smaller than it was before a series of cuts began four years ago.

In the same conference call, Administrative Director of the Courts Steven Jahr said families facing breakups now have to wait three months for a permanent custody and visitation order in Shasta County Superior Court, where he used to be a judge.

“It has real human consequences,” he said. “What’s happened over the last three or four years is not being remedied.”

Two of the state’s most influential newspapers have written editorials about the impact to trial courts. See the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee.

The Open Courts Coalition – which includes State Bar leaders and members of the plaintiffs’ bar and defense bar – will continue to lobby for the restoration of court funds, State Bar President Patrick Kelly said.

“Courts are in a crisis mode and members of the judiciary are our heroes in trying to maintain access to justice for clients in California,” he said.

The coalition plans to hold meetings this month to discuss a thorny issue that’s confounded the judiciary for 15 years – a formula to ensure equal access to the courts throughout the state.

State Bar Executive Director Joseph Dunn said state lawmakers first called for those metrics 15 years ago, when it transferred funding of the judicial branch from the counties to the state. But despite years of trying, no one has been able to devise metrics on which everyone can agree.

Last fall, the governor created a Trial Court Funding Workgroup, with members appointed by the chief justice and the governor, to evaluate the state’s progress on equal funding envisioned by the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997. The group has held a series of meetings and is due to report to the governor by April.

Dunn said unless the bench and bar can come up with a way to measure whether state funding is ensuring equal access to litigants, it will be difficult to convince the legislature to restore court funding.