by Mindy Morton, President
Over the past seven months, I have devoted a significant amount of time (and column space) to the court funding issue. At the end of June, the California Legislature passed the supplemental budget and associated bills, including AB 1481, which contains the provisions dealing with the courts. Governor Brown signed AB 1481 and the budget bills on June 27, 2012. Although California’s budget travails were closely followed by the press and the public, the details concerning the effect of the budget on the courts was not as well-publicized. This column will highlight the key effects of the budget, both good and bad, on the courts.
SANTA CLARA COUNTY FAMILY JUSTICE CENTER
Let’s start with the good news. Santa Clara County has been planning the Family Justice Center for over ten years, and the new Family Justice Center was included in the list of courthouse construction projects that are allowed to proceed. This means that the project can start construction next summer. The fate of the Family Justice Center was in doubt until the last minute, as it was left off the list of projects that could proceed in the Governor’s budget proposal earlier this year. The SCCBA joined with a coalition of elected officials and community leaders to convince legislators of the economic and social benefits for the court and the county, and these efforts were ultimately successful. Presiding Judge Richard J. Loftus, Jr., who spent considerable energy and countless hours to ensure that the project moved forward, stated that:
If it wasn’t for the incredible leadership of our Project Advisory Group…the Family Justice Center might very well have been put on the shelf for a long time. This is a great day where we can celebrate a smart fiscal decision that will bring jobs to our community, improve downtown and ultimately better serve our residents—specifically, the most vulnerable and deserving, our children. The Family Justice center will save taxpayers an estimated $2-3 million each year by replacing six leased facilities and eliminating duplicative services. The new building will consolidate family law functions into a single building with 20 new courtrooms. Construction will cost approximately $208 million and it will provide several thousand construction-related jobs. The Family Justice Center, which will have a collaborative justice approach, will consolidate many services in the same building in a family-friendly environment. The Center will also include an expanded self-help center and a children’s waiting area. Construction is expected to be completed in 2015.
DRASTIC BUDGET CUTS
Overall, the judicial branch’s budget was cut by approximately $544 million for the coming fiscal year. The trial court budgets will be cut by $285 million, and the courts will need to use any reserve funds they have to absorb these cuts. Further, approximately 38 courthouse construction projects around the state will be frozen for a year or more, and $240 million set aside for these projects will be moved to fund court operations. The Judicial Council, Administrative Office of the Courts, Courts of Appeal and Supreme Court will have their funding reduced by $19 million. The June budget includes trigger cuts if the Governor’s tax package does not pass in November, but fortunately, the judicial branch has been spared from the $5.9 billion in trigger cuts this year. Bill Robinson, III, the ABA president, recently met with Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and bar leaders to discuss the court funding crisis, and he stated that:
California is not the only state facing this crisis of court underfunding, but cuts over the last four years certainly make this state the hardest hit. Forty-two states cut budgets for their judiciaries last year, and this year is equally challenging around the country. Courts should be open, accessible and reliable to ensure our rights are protected and to preserve the one safe place our citizens and our businesses have to resolve disputes. The ABA urges all Californians, including state legislators, to support our courts and understand they are not just another line item in a budget—their function goes to the very core of our daily lives and the heart of our unique constitutional democracy. These drastic cuts will have a severe impact on trial courts throughout the state, and the impact will only grow as the courts exhaust their reserve funds. Indeed, beginning in the 2014-15 fiscal year, trial courts will only be allowed to place up to one percent of their total allocation in reserve, which will greatly reduce their financial protection and ability to take on multi-year projects.
NEW FEES AND INCREASED FEES
The budget includes increased fees in addition to the budget cuts, and this will likely have the most immediate impact on the profession and the public. The complex case filing fee, the motion fee, and the first paper filing fee on unlimited cases have all been increased. In addition, the budget imposes a new $30 court reporter fee, which applies to Civil, Family and Probate proceedings that are initiated by a party. This fee applies to all hearings up to one hour and is non-refundable. Case management conferences, status reviews and compliance hearings do not require a fee. For all motions filed after July 12, 2012, the moving party will be required to pay the $30 fee when filing the papers. Further, the $150 jury deposit fee is now nonrefundable and must be filed earlier than previously required. Advance fees must be deposited with the court on or before the date scheduled for the initial case management conference. If there is no case management conference scheduled, the fee must be deposited no later than 365 days after the filing of the complaint. Although we all hope that the economy will improve for many reasons, it is critically important for the future of justice in California. Our elected officials faced some tough choices in making budget cuts, and unless our economic situation improves, such tough choices will continue to be necessary. However, access to justice is a requirement if we want our democracy to continue—we cannot afford to make justice available only in good economic times. Indeed, it is during the worst economic times that we need access to the courts the most. I urge you all to continue demanding open courts and access to justice.