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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Judicial branch scrambles to
address governor’s budget ax

By Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer

Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

Faced with Gov. Brown’s proposal to permanently cut $200 million from the judicial branch budget, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said all options are on the table but the courts’ top priority is to remain open. It’s “premature” to talk about furloughs and court closures, the chief justice said, but in meetings with top executives and bar leaders, they “indicated our top priority is keeping the courts open. That includes no layoffs.”

Brown’s proposal, part of an overall effort to slash $12.5 billion from the state’s budget to meet its ongoing deficit, came a week after Cantil-Sakauye took over the court’s top job last month. She was both dismayed and alarmed by the recommended court cutbacks “because to me the judicial branch stands for public safety,” she said. “In a time of fiscal crisis, a cut to public safety is alarming.”

The judicial branch budget totals about $3.5 billion and comprises a fraction of the state’s total budget. “But when you take $200 million out of a budget that is only a small percentage of the whole budget, it is to us a major impact,” the chief justice said. In the past three fiscal years, $316 million has been sliced from the trial courts budget.

In a report issued late last month, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) suggested the courts actually could save $356 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year. It recommended cost savings totaling $250 million in two areas alone — taking $150 million of the unspent $312 million held by the trial courts at the beginning of last year, and taking $100 million from the courts’ Immediate and Critical Needs Account (INCA) used to finance 41 trial court construction projects. The one-time transfer would offset the general fund costs of the trial courts this fiscal year without delaying any planned court construction, the LAO said.

The analyst also proposed implementing electronic court reporting for a $13 million savings this year; ensuring adequate charges for court reporters in civil cases, for a $23 million savings; implementing competitive bidding for court security to save $20 million; contracting out interpreter services to save $15 million; and a proposed savings of $35 million by more closely aligning funding for 13 courts with their actual workload.

The report acknowledged that large-scale budget cuts “could significantly affect trial court operations” with civil courts bearing the brunt of delays caused by statutory deadline requirements in the criminal courts to prevent dismissal of charges against defendants.

Governor Jerry Brown
Governor Jerry Brown

Brown said he wants to evaluate “all areas of the judicial branch budget” and identify ways to meet the targeted goal “in a manner that is least harmful to the courts and preserves service levels provided to the public.” Although short on specifics, he pointed to “potential duplication” of some operations functions and fund reserve balances as possible targets for reductions. He also recommended a permanent decrease of more than $17 million to meet changes to conservatorship laws.

The governor wants to take a $350 million loan from the State Court Facilities Construction Fund that he said would be repaid in fiscal year 2013-14. Cantil-Sakauye said the state previously took money from that fund and repaid it with interest. But the new proposal does not include interest payments, and “if it’s not repaid, we would be under water. It would be devastating, but we have every reason to believe it will be repaid.”

The proposed budget also includes $148.3 million for 19 court construction projects from a fund the chief justice said is not in jeopardy.

In his budget message, Brown said the judicial branch has historically used one-time solutions to meet budget reductions “and has not made significant efforts to reduce ongoing costs in the court system.” That criticism, Cantil-Sakauye said, “is absolutely false. The trial courts, the appellate courts, the Supreme Court will tell you we have instituted permanent changes in how we do business in order to save money.”

Brown also proposed transferring the responsibility for court security to the counties, a shift that would be contingent on voter approval of a continuation of certain fees and taxes. Because local sheriffs who provide court security are unionized, changes in their working conditions likely would require labor negotiations as well.

Although Brown said court security would be ensured, Cantil Sakauye said the courts have been hard-pressed to keep pace with ever-rising security costs. “In fact, we’ve gotten cut for the last three years,” she said. “Security is cut over and over again, which gets me back to public safety.”

The legislative analyst said Brown’s approach “does not make sense” because without financial control, the courts could not ensure that sheriffs would provide sufficient security measures. Instead, competitive bidding by public and private security providers would offer an incentive to contain costs.

Courts have scrambled to deal with budget woes by reducing clerks’ hours, staff attrition, travel reductions and salary adjustments. The trial courts have laid off about 650 employees statewide, according to unofficial estimates of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). Once-a-month furlough days and closures of the trial courts ended in June, but the AOC and the appellate and supreme courts still furlough staffers. Cantil-Sakauye said closing trial courts again will be a last resort.

“We’ve talked about everyone having to give up something, we’ve talked about generally how we would approach issues,” she said. “We’ve collectively agreed this is a time for unifiying voices and the judicial branch will speak with one voice in protecting its budget.”