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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Decimated court system faces new round of cuts

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

Court cutsCalifornia’s judicial branch and its allies in the legal community are starting off the New Year under a cloud of uncertainty over further budget cuts.

Despite the passage of Proposition 30 – which is expected to raise $6 billion a year for the state’s general fund – a fiscal deficit remains. So the branch is anxiously waiting to find out what’s in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed spending plan for 2013-14. The plan will be released Jan. 10.

Courts have been decimated by four years of cuts that have reduced the judicial branch budget by about 30 percent, or $475 million. In addition, the governor revealed to court leaders last month that he’s considering sweeping out local trial court reserves one year earlier than expected, which court leaders say would translate into an additional $200 million cut.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye met with Brown last month to convey the importance of giving trial courts until July 2014 to spend the reserves so they can maintain an adequate cash flow and stave off further court closures.

Court officials cannot control their caseloads, making it difficult to deal with deficits, she said, pointing out that the judiciary has the crucial role of enforcing the many important laws enacted by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

“It’s like there’s a great big hole in the bag, and we are trying to provide what Californians rightly believe is their birthright,” she said.

Many counties have already eliminated all non-mandatory spending, shuttered courthouses and reduced services. Litigants in remote reaches of San Bernardino County, for example, will have to travel 175 miles to the nearest courthouse starting in May. Los Angeles County Superior Court is considering a major restructuring that would close 10 courthouses and consolidate all personal injury cases to two judges.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Allan D. Hardcastle, president of the California Judges Association, said additional cuts will “cripple the branch.”

“We believe this puts us on the precipice of a constitutional crisis,” he said at last month’s Judicial Council meeting.

But Administrative Director of the Courts Steven Jahr said there was reason for some optimism after a sit-down between the chief justice and governor, whom he described as “inquisitive, attentive and concerned.”

Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who is a member of the judicial council, urged the legal community to remain calm and predicted the fiscal picture will improve over the next year or two.

“While there’s cause for alarm, I don’t think it’s time to panic yet,” Evans said.

Every agency receiving state funds has undergone the same analysis, and the Legislature and governor are faced with choosing “among an array of bad decisions,” she said.

At the same council meeting, the judicial branch declared the budget to be its top legislative priority for the year. 

State Bar President Patrick M. Kelly has called on lawyers to help raise awareness of the court funding crisis. The loss of court access hurts not only the most vulnerable members of society but also threatens the health of the economy. Small businesses rely on the courts to resolve disputes quickly.

Meanwhile, Brown and Cantil-Sakauye have established a Trial Court Funding Workgroup to evaluate how well the state has done in funding trial court operations since taking over that responsibility from the counties with the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997.

The workgroup has held two meetings so far and its next meeting is Jan. 10 at 2860 Gateway Oaks Drive, Suite 400, Sacramento. A final report to the governor and Judicial Council is due by April 2013.