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President's Message: The Trial Court Encounters A Perfect Storm

Posted By Administration, Monday, April 13, 2015

by Guest Author, Hon. Risë Jones Pichon
Presiding Judge
Superior Court, Santa Clara County 

Editor’s Note:  The SCCBA encourages attorneys practicing in Santa Clara County and appearing in Santa Clara County Superior Courts to write their legislator and the Governor to encourage them to restore court funding to an appropriate level.   You can find your legislator’s contact information here.  You can find a sample letter to the Governor here. For more detailed information regarding the specifics of the impact on the inadequate funding to Santa Clara County Superior Court, you will find the Court’s Budget Snapshot here

Visions of the future have always guided the Court in its quest to achieve financial security.  Critical attention to economic forecasts and the fiscal condition of state and local economies has led to prudent decisions and planning on our part.  History will confirm that given the ability to manage the resources allocated to us, we will, as we have in the past, be able to weather the current downturn in the economy including recession and interest rate fluctuations, and revenue shortfalls.  

Our Court has been the beneficiary of the wisdom and foresight of the finest of court leaders who have acted with the understanding that economic challenges are inevitable.  With the leadership of our Chief Executive Officers, Chief Financial Officers and Presiding Judges, our Court has survived every financial crisis that we have encountered.  We can safely state that the Court’s budget has been managed wisely and frugally.  

Last year you read about an anticipated series of events that would significantly affect the Court’s budget, our ability to manage resources, and seriously impact Court operations.  We worked feverishly to change the course of events that would strip us of our ability to control our own financial destiny.  

With the exhaustion of all available resources, we were left hoping for a miracle to change what was to come.  The valiant efforts we made were not enough to change the direction of the financial storm about to strike.  As a result, our Court, for the first time was forced to take steps never before imagined. 

When the recession hit in 2008, every branch of government was affected.  Every agency and department dependent on the State’s General Fund took a financial hit.  For the Judiciary, this meant deep budget cuts statewide for six years resulting in the closure of 52 courthouses and 202 courtrooms.  The fallout from these cuts resulted in the reduction of staff by 19 percent.  In real terms, approximately 4,000 employees lost their jobs in the California Court system.  

Our Court was prepared to withstand these hits under the stewardship of our CEO and CFO whose sage advice resulted in savings to which we resorted each year to achieve a balanced budget.  While many courts were forced to lay off staff, including their Subordinate Judicial Officers and Court Reporters, close courtrooms and whole courthouses, our Court was able to survive with the use of savings.  To most, our ability to cope would appear to be a good thing.

However, it was the ability of individual courts to meet the financial challenges of the recession and the disparity of their responses to subsequent budget cuts over the next six years, which drew attention to the way funds were allocated statewide.  It brought to light a method of distribution that dates back to the funding of the courts by the counties, and which continued with the assumption by the State of the responsibility for growth in the costs to fund Trial Court operations.  With the enactment of the Trial Court Funding Act of 1997, the costs of operating the Trial Courts of California were consolidated at the state level for the purpose of solving the financial crisis faced by many of the smaller courts due to inadequate funding at the local county level.  

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