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Judiciary grapples with more budget cuts

Over protests from the legal community, the governor signed a 2012-13 spending plan in June that slashes $544 million from the judicial branch budget.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye opposed the cuts, but said she appreciated the hard choices faced by the governor and the legislature dealing with a statewide decline in revenues. The court system has experienced four straight years of revenue declines that have already led to layoffs, shortened hours and darkened courtrooms.

“The judicial branch is comprised of many incredibly talented, innovative, and thoughtful leaders dedicated to the rule of law and justice for all,” she said in a statement. “I am confident that we will make it through these difficult times and emerge, in the end, a stronger branch.”

In May, Gov. Jerry Brown had proposed eliminating trial court reserve funds next year, but the final budget he signed June 27 gave the trial courts an extra year to plan. A new one-percent cap on reserves will take effect with the 2014-15 budget.

The budget also reduces the amount of money available to the Judicial Council for statewide initiatives and blocks the council from spending any money on the Court Case Management System without legislative approval. The council in March abandoned work on the statewide computer network.

A volunteer group of lawyers calling itself the Open Courts Coalition lobbied to try to protect the branch from further cuts, warning that the poorest and most vulnerable members of society are most affected. The coalition organized rallies in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento.

“I thank the judicial branch leaders and the lawyer groups who advocated tirelessly and collaboratively for judicial branch resources,” the chief said after the budget deal was done. The Judicial Council will meet July 27 to figure out how to deal with the additional cuts.

The council, still grappling with the impact of the cuts, also accepted a harsh critique in June of its staff at the Administrative Office of the Courts by a committee appointed by the chief justice. The Strategic Evaluation Committee, which was charged by the chief with conducting an in-depth review of the AOC, recommended downsizing and limiting the scope of the staff in 300-page report.

The council will take public comment on the proposal through July 21.

Cantil-Sakauye said the report shows the judicial branch is willing to “take a hard look at ourselves” in a time when the courts are facing a “grim financial reality over which we have little control.”

The report echoed many of the concerns of the Alliance of California Judges, which has decried the AOC as a bloated bureaucracy.

But other speakers at a June 21 council meeting cautioned the council not to rush to judgment and pointed out the positive impact the AOC has had in ensuring the public has equal access to the courts regardless of socio-economic status or where they live.

Justice Laurie Zelon of the 2nd District Court of Appeal said she was puzzled by the recommendation to apply a cost-benefit analysis on all AOC programs.

While such an analysis is an important tool, she said, “the focus should be the needs of the litigants."

Anthony Pico, 23, a former foster care child who has served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care since he was 16, pointed out that the commission’s work reduced the foster care population from 80,000 to 60,000 statewide.

“I fear the report is throwing the baby out with the bath water,” he said.