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MCLE Self-Assessment Test

Judicial Council OKs new court funding plan

By Laura Ernde
Staff Writer

Members of California’s legal community hope that a new formula for distributing money to the trial courts marks the first step in restoring much-needed operational funds to the statewide judicial branch.

The Judicial Council on April 26 unanimously approved a plan to start calculating each county’s share of state funds based on its workload. The formula that’s been used since 1997 is based on the county-level funding in place before the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act shifted funding to the state. Previous attempts to make the formula more equitable have fallen short.

This time, however, a Judicial Council subcommittee led by Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge Laurie Earl succeeded. The new formula is designed to take into account the volume and type of filings, cost-of-living figures and some unique funding needs of counties.

“This new funding methodology demonstrates our branch’s commitment to self-assessment and represents real progress in the evolution of our court system,” Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement. “I'm grateful for all of those who spent many hours and contributed to this historic and worthwhile effort.”

No county has escaped the pain of statewide budget cuts over the last five years. Judicial branch leaders characterized the new formula as shifting money from courts that are underfunded to those that are hurting the most. Net losers under the plan include the San Francisco Bay Area counties, Orange County and San Diego. Net winners include Los Angeles County and the fast-growing counties of San Bernardino and Riverside.

Because it’s being phased in gradually, the new formula may not have a dramatic impact on trial court budgets for at least five years. That could change, however, if the state’s budget picture improves. The plan calls for any additional money for the branch to accelerate the adoption of the formula. 

“We have created a process whereby any new investment is supercharged to get out to the woefully underfunded courts,” said Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Brian Walsh, a member of the formula subcommittee. “We felt we spread the pain appropriately and at a speed to what courts could absorb.”

There are signs that the state’s economy is improving and bringing in additional tax dollars. A recent report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office in late April predicted that revenues could exceed budget estimates by as much as $4.5 billion. But the judicial branch is not the only constituency that’s jockeying for those additional dollars.

Members of the Open Courts Coalition, made up of attorneys from both the plaintiff and defense bar, said they hope that the formula will bolster their advocacy in Sacramento.

“With the Judicial Council's approval of a comprehensive allocation plan for our courts, we are finally in a position of strength to advocate for increased funding,” said coalition steering committee member and State Bar President Patrick M. Kelly. “We need to immediately repair the horrendous damage that’s been done to our courts by chronic under funding. This allocation plan is a very strong step in that process.”