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Judiciary seeks budget restoration with upswing in economy

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

With the state’s economy on the upswing, California’s legal community is hoping for an infusion of state tax dollars this year to begin restoring access to justice.

After four years of state budget cuts, the branch saw a glimmer of hope last year with the restoration of $63 million.

But Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has said that it will take an additional $1 billion over the next three to five years to ensure that the courts are open and accessible to all citizens. She added that she recognizes it’s an ambitious goal.

The cuts have reduced the judicial branch budget by $475 million, or about 30 percent. The state general fund now provides 25 percent of the branch budget, which is down from a high of 56 percent in 2008-2009, according to court statistics. To fill in the funding gaps, the branch has increased user fees and fines and tapped money from local court fund balances and funds designated for statewide projects, such as courthouse construction.  

Last month, the Judicial Council voted to make adequate investment in the judiciary its No. 1 legislative priority this year.

In addition, the branch will seek funding for 50 new judgeships and the conversion of up to 26 vacant subordinate judicial officer positions to judgeships to alleviate a shortage that’s most acute in fast-growing counties. The Legislature approved the 50 additional judgeships in 2007 (for a total of 1,662 authorized judges), but the positions have not yet been funded.

A 2012 assessment showed the need for 314 additional judges statewide.  

“That’s a very significant access-to-justice issue,” said Yolo County Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg, a member of the council.

The council also voted to sponsor legislation to expand access to interpreter services in civil proceedings.

The legislative priorities are in line with the chief’s Access 3D framework, which seeks to ensure access to the justice system through:

  • improved physical access by keeping courts open and operating during hours that benefit the public.
  • increased remote access by increasing the ability of court users to conduct branch business online.
  • enhanced equal access by serving people of all languages, abilities and needs, in keeping with California’s diversity.