Mindy Morton, President
No courts, no justice. The judicial branch is a co-equal branch of government responsible for protecting our rights and enforcing our laws. The courts touch
every aspect of our lives by protecting homes from foreclosure, protecting children from neglect or abuse, and enforcing laws and contracts. The executive and
legislative branches of California’s government have cut funding from the general fund for the judicial branch by approximately 30% since 2008. The California
Assembly has also further moved to interfere with the judicial branch by passing AB 1208, a bill that limits the court’s flexibility by moving away from a coordinated
and uniform statewide system of justice. Our communities are threatened, and I ask all of you to stand with the Santa Clara County Bar Association to protect our
THE COURT FUNDING CRISIS
California’s courts are not just a line item in a budget. The courts affect millions of Californians every day in ways that no other part of the government does: the courts dispense justice. Yet despite the critical role that the courts play in California’s communities, the court system is teetering on the edge of unsustainability, due to several years of drastic budget cuts. This troubling phenomenon is not limited to California—the National Center for State Courts found that 42 of the 50 states reduced court budgets in 2011. In New Hampshire, the state courts were forced to suspend civil jury trials for a year due to underfunding. Across the country, citizens and businesses are finding that William Gladstone was correct in stating that “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
It is true that California has undergone a historic economic downturn, and state resources have become scarce. However, without sufficient baseline funding, the state courts cannot meet their statutory and constitutional obligations to the public. Just as we all have a stake in rebuilding our economy, we also have a stake in ensuring that the courts remain open and accessible. Courts have been forced to reduce operating hours and to close courtrooms and entire courthouses. Citizens are waiting in lines for hours just to pay traffic tickets. Civil trials could be delayed by years. Family courts have become overwhelmed and restraining orders and child custody orders are delayed. Justice has become out of reach to many Californians, and unless action is taken, the justice system could be irretrievably damaged. The governor’s current budget proposal maintains court funding at last year’s underfunded level, which does not provide sufficient viability for the court system. The budget also calls for $125 million in trigger cuts to the courts if revenue goals are not met. Such cuts would be devastating and unsustainable.
A feasible baseline budget needs to be established in order for the judicial branch to provide stability and to ensure that the courts can meet their constitutional and statutory obligations to all Californians. The courts are evaluating additional fees and long-term court efficiencies, but such efforts alone cannot provide sufficient funding to ensure that the courts will be able to serve the public and provide timely justice. The courts provide essential and critical services that keep our lives and our economy functioning. It is time that we stand up for justice and demand adequate funding for our courts. No courts, no justice.
AB 1208 is an inappropriate intrusion in the fundamental governance of the judicial branch. It will dismantle the statewide judicial system and standards that we have worked so hard to create over the last 15 years. The goal of a statewide administration of justice is to bring uniformity in administrative rules and processes, avoid waste, create transparency in financial accountability, and ensure equal access to justice for all Californians. AB 1208 moves the state in opposite direction.
AB 1208 eliminates the Judicial Council’s authority to allocate funding to the trial courts and instead would allocate funds by formula to each county, without regard to guaranteeing equal access to courts. The bill threatens the uniformity and efficiencies of a statewide system that has improved the public’s access to justice, which is why Presiding Judges from 42 of the 58 trial courts have signed a letter in opposition to AB 1208.
It is of deep concern that the bill gives trial courts the express authority to transfer any funds between functions or programs, without any oversight or reporting. The inevitable result is that some courts will divert funding for statewide programs that provide critical benefits for Californians. Courts could divert funds intended for self-help centers, court interpreters, complex civil litigation or other programs. Funds allocated to the courts for dependency counsel could be transferred for other purposes, making it even more difficult to improve outcomes for children.
On January 30, 2012, the California Assembly passed AB 1208 by a slim majority. It now awaits Senate action. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye recently commented on the Assembly’s action:
People who know the facts, know that this is no victory for Californians, for our state courts, or for equal access to justice. Our focus now turns to the Senate where we will continue to disseminate current and accurate information about the needs of the trial courts and the people of our state and the detrimental impact that this bill will have on meeting those needs. I thank all of those who have worked so hard on behalf of a fair justice system and who will, I know, continue to do so because of their commitment to the equal administration of justice across the state.
Not only do Californians deserve equal access to justice no matter where they live, they also deserve to have some reasonable expectation of what they will face when they walk into a court. There are fundamental decisions that must be made for the benefit of all Californians and all California courts. AB 1208 moves us away from the benefits of a statewide system and threatens the public’s access to justice. Please join with the SCCBA in opposing AB 1208. No courts, no justice.