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The Trial Court Encounters A Perfect Storm

Posted By Administration, Monday, April 13, 2015

by 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.  

The fact that some courts had to resort to extreme measures, and others were able to get by with minor changes in the way business was done, attracted the attention of the Governor and Members of the Legislature.  Their response to the Judicial Council was that future new dollars would be conditioned on the court’s development of a plan to ensure a more equitable distribution of the funding allocated to the Judicial Branch from the State.  This resulted in the modification of the Workload-based Allocation and Funding Methodology.

The new formula developed for and approved by the Judicial Council for allocating funds to the courts of this state has now entered its second year.  It is called the Workload-based Allocation and Funding Methodology, referred to as WAFM.  It was adopted in 2013 by the Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the State’s Judicial Branch.  The Council is also responsible for managing the resources of the Judicial Branch.  

The WAFM formula is based on an estimate of funding needed by each court for non-judicial filings driven functions.  Any new money appropriated by the State for general Trial Court operations is allocated pursuant to WAFM.  An equal amount of historical funding is also allocated pursuant to WAFM.  The term historical funding means the funding received by each court as of fiscal year 2012-2013.  It is a five-year plan applied in increasing percentages over the five-year period.  The goal is that the courts in each of the 58 counties will receive full funding from the State; however, the current pace of State appropriations has limited funding at only 75 percent of their need.

As the percentage of recalculation of historic funding increased in the second fiscal year, 2013-2014, a new law which severely limited the Court’s ability to carry over its savings from one year to the next took effect.  We knew this was coming and worked for two years to convince the Legislature and the Governor of the disastrous effect this law would have on the Court’s ability to meet its financial obligations.  We did not prevail, and the law became effective June 30, 2014.  

For our Court, this meant that the savings we relied on to survive the recession and six years of cuts was now depleted, and our ability to meet financial challenges was compromised.  For the first time, the unthinkable had occurred.  We could not balance our budget, and we were compelled to take steps never before imagined.  

With no savings, we were forced to allow our staff vacancy rates to rise to morale crushing numbers.  We had to reduce business hours, reduce traffic night court sessions by 75 percent, and reduce small claims calendars by 25 percent.  We were compelled to close four criminal courtrooms, one civil courtroom, a juvenile dependency department, a juvenile justice department and two traffic/small claims courtrooms.  Staff vacancies are at 27 percent of our pre-recession levels in 2008, and we are allowing three Commissioner positions to remain vacant.  We also closed two remote self-help locations and the mobile self-help unit.  The list is not exhausted.  

The Governor has recommended $90.1 million in new funding for the trial courts in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2015-2016.  We are grateful for this additional funding.  However, if all remains the same, including the projected application of WAFM, our Court faces a further reduction of $600,000 this next fiscal year.

But we still have hope.  With the infusion of sufficient new money from the State, which has been reported to enjoy a 2 billion dollar surplus, the new funding methodology can work fairly and equitably for all courts despite the 1 percent restriction on reserves.  We will continue to advocate on our own behalf and on behalf of the entire Judicial Branch.  

On March 23, 2015, the Bench Bar Coalition consisting of the California Association of Local Bars, the State Bar of California, and the Judicial Council, met with Members of the Senate and the Assembly or their staff to provide information regarding the infusion of more funds for the courts.  I, along with Judge Brian Walsh and past SCCBA President Shannon Stein, traveled to Sacramento as members of this Coalition to participate in the Bench-Bar Coalition Day in Sacramento.  The purpose of the Day in Sacramento was to meet the new legislators and rekindle relationships with returning members.  In that one day, the Coalition managed to visit 80 legislative offices to convey information on the Judicial Branch’s legislative and budget priorities.  At the end of the day, we gathered in the Assembly Chambers to hear Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye deliver the State of the Judiciary Address to the Joint Session of the California Legislature.  A very positive sign was the attendance of Governor Jerry Brown at the reception that followed.  All Supreme Court Justices were also in attendance.

The Judiciary continues to take positive steps forward.  Statewide, courts strive to do more with less by implementing new and innovative programs and streamlining processes.  For example, the Judicial Council established the Commission on the Future of California’s Court System this past July.  A number of our Judicial Officers have been appointed by the Chief Justice to serve on this Commission.  They are Judges Thang Barrett, Le Jacqueline Duong, and Patricia Lucas.  Our Chief Executive Officer, David Yamasaki, has also been appointed to serve.  The purpose of this Commission is to study the way the courts operate and to identify obstacles presented by structure and statutory requirements which hinder our ability to be efficient, and to make recommendations to modernize court operations.

At the local level, our Judicial Officers have reached out to our local Legislators.  At our invitation, Assembly Members Mark Stone and Kansen Chu visited the Court.  We were thrilled to showcase our innovations and the successes we have achieved.  We have planned and will be hosting a Legislators Day with the Bench, where our local leaders will tour our courthouses, observe court proceedings, and walk through the new Family Justice Center currently under construction.  Afterward, they will listen to a panel discussion regarding the implementation of Proposition 47, followed by lunch with the Judicial Officers and open discussion.

To address the negative impact to our local court users, we have done the following:

For the increasingly long public service lines at Traffic Court, which resulted from staffing reductions, we have reassigned data entry staff on an interim basis to eliminate the huge backlog of citations.  This backlog caused the production of Courtesy Notices to be delayed, prompting members of the public to appear in court in lieu of submitting payments via U.S. mail.  The temporary reassignment of staff has reduced the backlog significantly; and as a result, we have noticed a steady decline in number of people appearing just to pay their traffic fine.  

We updated our website to allow individuals to make payments on their delinquent cases.  Previously, parties in this situation were required to appear in court to set up a payment schedule.  We also modified our website and the windows at the Traffic Court facility to permit the payment of traffic fines with all of the primary credit card entities.  Previously, these transactions were limited to only two different carriers.  These changes have produced significant results.  

We realize the value of investing in our future.  With the imposition of the 1 percent cap on reserves, the Court was forced to spend down our savings by June 30, 2014.  We chose to apply those savings to the acquisition of a new case management system, which will replace the two incompatible and antiquated systems currently in use for our civil and criminal functions.  With the rollout of the new system later this year, we anticipate significant savings with the elimination of redundant processes.  Our overworked staff will enjoy some relief from the many duties they have been asked to perform as a result increasing vacancy rates which is our last resort to balancing the budget.  The result will be a Court that operates more efficiently and effectively.

The convergence of the new funding allocation methodology and the 1 percent cap on reserves produced the “perfect storm” for the Santa Clara County Superior Court which could not have been foreseen and for which we could not have prepared.  We have been shaken, but our foundation remains.  It is the resilience of our Judicial Officers, our administration and support staff which will enable us to weather this storm and return to solid ground while keeping a watchful eye on the economic horizon.   


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