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Budget restores modest sum to California courts

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

After years of devastating budget cuts, California courts will receive an additional $63 million this year. But it won’t be enough to prevent continued courthouse closures throughout the state.

The spending plan finalized by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last month calls for an additional $60 million allocation for the trial courts and $3 million for the Supreme Court, appellate courts and Habeas Corpus Resource Center.

In a June 27 statement, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called the budget plan “the first step in the long road to restoring funding to our judicial system.” But she also warned that the funds are just a Band-Aid for courts left decimated by years of cuts.

“Although the extra $63 million for the branch in this year’s budget allows us to start rebuilding, it may not be enough to reopen courts that have closed,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “It may not be enough to bring back court employees who have been laid off or to stop ongoing furloughs for many court employees. And it absolutely won’t be enough to provide the kind of access to justice the public deserves.  

“We need fuller restoration to the branch budget so we can adequately serve the public. We need to keep our courts open. We need safe and secure courthouses. And we need more judges in areas of the state that have been underserved for years.”

In the last five years, the judicial branch’s budget has been chopped by roughly $1 billion, leading to courthouse closures, reduced clerk hours and worker layoffs. In her state of the judiciary address delivered to the Legislature in March, Cantil-Sakauye noted that since 2010, 30 courts had reduced their hours of operation, 22 courthouses had closed and 114 courtrooms had shut their doors.

Even with the prospect of an additional $60 million allocation going to the trial courts, Los Angeles County Superior Court moved ahead with plans – made prior to the state budget being finalized – to eliminate 511 budgeted positions. The move required 177 employee layoffs.

In a statement released in conjunction with the June 14 layoffs, court officials noted that they  were now managing a $195 million structural budget deficit. To help compensate for lost staff positions, they put in place a consolidation plan which included the closure of eight courthouses, large reductions in services at two others and the elimination of the remaining part-time court reporters in civil courts, as well as all full-time referees in the juvenile courts.

“We have reached the new normal,” Presiding Judge David S. Wesley said in a prepared statement. “And there is nothing to like about it.”

State Bar President Patrick Kelly said although the situation is not ideal, the additional funding indicates a positive turning point for the judicial branch.

“Although $63 million falls short of what is required to restore complete access to justice in this state, it is a show of good faith by the governor and the Legislature,” Kelly said. “It is the first time in many years the Legislature and the governor have allocated to the courts an increase in the amount of court funding.

“While not adequate to handle the needs of our court system, it is certainly a step in the right direction,” he added. “This realization represents a significant change that will help the cause of access to justice in the future.”