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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Chief Justice says court closures must end

Hon. Ronald George
Hon. Ronald George

California’s courts may have shouldered more than their share of the state’s budget cutbacks, but the once-a-month closures must end, Chief Justice Ronald George said last month. In his 15th annual State of the Judiciary address, George told lawmakers he did not come to Sacramento with hat in hand. But, he said, “these statewide closures must not continue into the next fiscal year.”

The Judicial Council authorized “with great reluctance” the monthly shutdowns of all the state’s courts last July to help meet a $380 million hit to the judicial system’s budget. The closures were expected to save $102 million. Between 80 and 90 percent of the state’s judges also reduced their salaries by 4.6 percent, 20,000 court employees are furloughed once a month, hiring was frozen and more than 70 positions were eliminated. In addition, some new judgeships have been put on hold and the Supreme Court closed its Los Angeles clerk’s office.

But George noted that the entire judicial branch budget accounts for just 2 percent of the state’s budget and suggested that the courts are “bearing … possibly more than our share” of the cutbacks in government spending. And while the proposed budget anticipates more federal funds to help states balance their budgets as well as a proposal by Gov. Schwarzenegger to generate revenue by boosting fines for drivers who speed through intersections, George said such contingencies are uncertain.

As he does every year, he appealed to the legislature to provide “sufficient and secure funding” for the judicial branch. “Courts are not a luxury to be funded in good times and ignored in bad times,” he said. “Justice cannot be available only when it is convenient to pay for it.”

A measure to provide $5 billion in lease-revenue bond funds to finance new construction and renovation of California court facilities was approved in 2008, and some court leaders have suggested tapping that fund to meet day-to-day operating expenses. George called such proposals “a shortsighted approach (that) would have severe negative consequences for public safety and the well-being of the men and women who work in our courts.” Each year of delay would cost an estimated $300 million in lost purchasing power, he added.

He called projects to build or renovate 41 courthouses in 34 counties a “homegrown stimulus package” that will create as many as 105,000 jobs in the building trades.

In addition, although some funding earmarked for a court case management system (CCMS) has been diverted, thus slowing implementation of technological upgrades, “further delay will compromise our ability to effectively use what has been developed thus far and will only increase the costs in the future,” George said. The new system is being audited by the state’s Chief Information Officer, and a legislative committee voted last month to request a state audit as well. The AOC opposed the move, but the Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted to ask State Auditor Elaine Howle to look at the CCMS.

The new case management system, a statewide technology initiative, is being phased in throughout the state and is designed to improve data sharing among agencies as well as provide unified case management in all 58 counties.

George called the construction and CCMS programs “as vital a part of California’s infrastructure as our bridges and highways and fundamental to administering justice.

“These endeavors cannot be shelved when we encounter bad times.”

The chief justice also deflected criticism of the growth of the budget of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), saying the increase reflects legislative actions that transferred county and local court responsibilities to the AOC as well as other new mandates. Further, he said, the AOC budget accounts for only about 3 ½ percent of the total judicial branch budget.

Comparing the California court system to the federal judiciary and courts in other states, George said, “California’s AOC does far more with far fewer staff.”