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The Drought is over for the State but not for Our Local Court

Posted By Administration, Thursday, March 9, 2017
 

 

Guest Message By
Hon. Patricia Lucas
Presiding Judge
Superior Court of California,
County of Santa Clara

 

The hills are finally green after a long drought, and state revenues have been back up for some time now following the great recession.  Why, then, does Santa Clara Superior Court continue to be woefully underfunded?

As you are probably aware, since 2010 over $1 billion has been taken out of the judicial branch budget.  Furthermore, as Judge Pichon wrote during her term as presiding judge, a limit of 1% has been imposed on the reserves a trial court can carry from one year to the next, drastically limiting the options a court has to deal with budget cuts year to year.  The Governor’s January proposal for the 2017-18 budget is essentially flat for the judicial branch, and when the Workload Allocation Funding Methodology (WAFM) formula is applied to a flat budget, that means a further cut for Santa Clara—of about $1 million.

Compared to about ten years ago, our Court’s budget is roughly three-quarters of what it was—and that does not take into account that things are more expensive than they were then. Could you buy the same amount of housing, food, and living expenses with 75% of unadjusted dollars compared to ten years ago?  The Court has about two-thirds of the staffing we had ten years ago.  Could your law office get the same amount of work done if you had only two employees when you used to have three?

No one questions that year after year of under funding has impaired our ability to serve the public in the way our judicial officers want to serve.  These circumstances are especially disappointing given our Court’s long history of excellence and innovation.  When the court system was funded by the counties, we were fortunate that our local county government was so firmly committed to ensuring a high quality of public service in our local courts.  Santa Clara was out in front consistently with innovations in family and juvenile court operations and in implementing collaborative courts that helped people turn their lives around.

Although we are proud to be the only Bay Area court that successfully avoided laying off employees during the great recession, we unfortunately had to increase our employee vacancy rate as one means to address the under funding.  And while we have tried for years to do 100% with far less, even our hard-working and devoted team cannot do it all.  We are disappointed not to be able to give our public the timely service they have a right to expect.

Nevertheless, there are some bright spots that give us reason to hope that we can maintain and improve service levels despite further budget cuts.  First, our employees are indeed devoted and hard-working, and for their tireless and cheerful work we are so grateful.  Next, we have a dynamic new Court Executive Officer in Rebecca Fleming, an experienced court administrator we were able to lure from Stanislaus Superior Court, who is well connected in statewide groups and well respected by employees and managers as well as judges.  Rebecca has new ideas and new energy, and a wonderful down-to-earth mode of communication.  Finally, we are fortunate that our friends in county government remain so devoted to our local justice system and are willing to collaborate with the Court in creative ways—all to the benefit of the same public we all serve. 

What can SCCBA and its members do to help?  There are several ways.  First, please continue to be patient and courteous in your interactions with our employees.   We know that your inquiries arise from the duty you owe to your clients, but we all have the same goal of trying to process cases as expeditiously as possible given our staffing constraints.  Second, please continue to support our Court operations with the generous gift of your time as temporary judges in family court, the civil and probate divisions, small claims and traffic court.  We literally could not do it without you, and the judges are so grateful for the services you provide directly to members of the public and, when they are represented, to their counsel. 

Finally, please contact your legislators and join our judges in advocating for adequate trial court funding.   The voice of the bar is a strong one, and your perspective will be important to your representatives in Sacramento.  The judicial branch represents barely more than one percent of the general fund expense of our state—which means that the under funding could be corrected with a minimal effect on the overall state budget.  Moreover, California’s current funding level for the judicial branch is by percentage among the very lowest nationwide when compared with other states where the judicial branch is funded by state monies rather than local funds.  Californians deserve better.  Many current members of the legislature are not law-trained and may not appreciate that the trial courts are the social service agency of last resort for many of the state’s most vulnerable: abused and neglected children, families in the midst of emotional and financial upheaval, victims of domestic violence seeking protection, veterans, the elderly, those who are addicted or mentally ill, and job seekers whose employment depends on clearance of criminal records.  Please use your voice to help our legislators understand the importance of providing a justice system that has the resources to serve and protect all those who must seek justice. 

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