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Trial Court Budget Woes: Limited Funds = Limited Civil Rights

Posted By Administration, Monday, March 10, 2014
Updated: Tuesday, May 13, 2014

by: Brian C. Walsh
Presiding Judge, Superior Court, Santa Clara County

Underfunding Undermines Our Judicial System

The economy is recovering from the Great Recession.  Money is beginning to flow into sectors bashed by the nasty downturn.  But, for California’s courts, adequate funding remains elusive.

Since the high-water mark of 2008, California’s trial courts have suffered over $1 billion dollars in cumulative reductions, including nearly $1/2 billion dollars in permanent ongoing reductions, resulting in annual budgets of approximately $2 billion.  Statewide impacts include:  51 courthouses closed, 205 courtrooms closed, 30 courts with reduced public service hours, and 37 with reduced Self-Help/Family Law Facilitator services.  The number of citizens affected by closures of courthouses in their communities exceeds 2 million people.

On a local level, the Santa Clara County Superior Court has suffered similar reductions.  Our cumulative cuts since 2008 are $91.8 million, with permanent ongoing reductions of $26.5 million per year, shrinking our funding to $95 million per year.

As lawyers who practice in our courts know, these cuts have led to a loss in important services.  To balance our budget, we have been forced to allow attrition to up our vacancy rate to approximately 25%, resulting in every 3 employees doing the work of 4.  The effects on our employees cannot be minimalized:  stress and overwork is their daily fare.  And, the lawyers and litigants who use our courts have suffered along with our employees:  longer lines, backlogged filings, inadequate facilities, and delayed hearings.

As Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has observed:  “We are rationing justice, and it’s become more than a fiscal problem.  It is in my view now a civil rights problem.  Because when you can no longer guarantee timely access to justice, and you can no longer provide litigants a courtroom in his or her community of his or her peers, then we know we are denying the protections of an American democracy.”

Fortunately, legislative leaders have come to understand the plight of the courts.  Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Wieckowski recently stated:  “Californians rely on a fully functioning court system to protect their constitutional rights, secure protective orders, resolve child custody issues, and settle business disputes.  I share the concerns of the Chief Justice regarding the importance of access to justice and the need to provide fair and adequate funding for the judicial branch.”

And, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, Darrell Steinberg asserted that, in spreading the pain of budget reductions among state-funded entities, “[t]he courts deserve special consideration … [L]et’s not forget the people who depend upon what goes on [in] … our courts.”

The Chief Justice has proposed a “Blueprint for a Fully Functioning Judicial Branch,” which is a three-year plan for reinvesting in our judicial system so that courts will be able to provide the high quality and timely access to justice that the public expects and deserves.  The Blueprint proposes a reinvestment of $613 million in the coming fiscal year (2014-15), increasing to $879 million in 2015-16, and $1.2 billion in 2016-17.  These may seem large amounts, but the money is sorely needed and the State is expected to have ample reserves to afford the restoration:  the Legislative Analyst’s Office predicts the State will be accumulating reserves of $5.6 billion in 2014-15, increasing to $9.8 billion within three years.

The Governor’s Proposed Budget for Fiscal Year 2014-2015

The Governor’s Proposed Budget, released two months ago, provides for a $100 million restoration of budget reductions for the trial courts.  Certainly, this is better than the $0 proposed by the Governor last year.  But, it is inadequate to stop the bleeding and inadequate to address our structural deficit.  It is not even adequate to keep us level with last year.

As the leadership of the Judicial Branch has explained, it will require $250-$300 million to simply keep pace with last year’s reduced budget:  “The amount of new funding necessary to simply maintain current year service levels is $67 million (increased employee health and retirement costs) and $197 million (one-time funds no longer available) for a total of approximately $264 million.”  That amount will expand to the extent costs for services and employees escalate.

So, it is clear that the Governor’s proposal is not the solution . . . but it is a beginning.  Last year the Governor’s proposed budget of $0 restoration for the trial courts became, after extensive budget negotiations, a $60 million restoration.  This year we must advocate for more and trust that, like last year, the legislative leadership will pass a budget with significantly more money for the trial courts and, like last year, succeed in obtaining the Governor’s agreement to increase the amount of funds restored to the courts.

Workload Allocation Funding Methodology (WAFM)

Though all trial courts have been hurting, some are in far worse shape than others due to historical funding policies.  In 2013, at the urging of the Legislature and the Governor’s Office, and with the blessing of the full California Judicial Branch, a small group of Presiding Judges and Court Executive Officers, including myself and our CEO, David Yamasaki, worked to create a trial court funding formula that would allocate greater resources to the woefully underfunded courts in California, such as Riverside and San Bernardino.

The adoption of the WAFM funding formula by the Judicial Council last year was the right thing to do and its implementation has begun to bring some alleviation to the suffering of the most underfunded courts.  But it is a zero-sum game – increased funds for the courts that are worse off comes from courts, such as Santa Clara County Superior Court, which, historically, were not as underfunded.  Therefore, of the $60 million of restored cuts received last year, Santa Clara netted only $161,000.  Of the $100 million additional restoration to the trial courts proposed by the Governor this year, Santa Clara would receive only $1.5 million to offset its $26.5 million shortfall.  We need so much more!

1% Cap on Court Reserves

Our budget problems are compounded by a new statute which will, for the first time, limit trial court reserves to 1%.  This is particularly harmful for a frugal court like ours.  In past years, we anticipated the budget cuts and slashed our own expenses severely.  By doing so, we were able to end each fiscal year with a few million dollars in reserve, which we then used to carry us through the funding reductions of the succeeding fiscal year and cover increases in expenses over which the court had no control.

Absent a change in statute, beginning July 1, 2014, each trial court will be able to carry forward only 1% in reserves.  That covers only 4 days of payroll!  I know of no well-run organization that works in that fashion.  Most organizations have a “rainy day fund” to cushion against down budget cycles.  By way of comparison, school districts in California typically maintain reserves of 15 – 20%.  It is unclear why the trial courts of California are being denied this same fiscally responsible tool.

We will continue to advocate for removing that limitation so that we can maintain adequate reserves – stressing that needs for cash flow, business planning, improvement in the delivery of services and simple prudent fiscal management compel the conclusion that a 1% reserve would undermine the fiscal health of the trial courts.

Advocacy Efforts

The good news in this fight is that we have the strong support of our county’s very able legislative delegation.  Senators Jim Beall, Ellen Corbett, Jerry Hill and Bill Monning, and Assemblymembers Luis Alejo, Nora Campos, Paul Fong, Rich Gordon, Mark Stone and Bob Wieckowski have all taken positions supporting increased funding for the courts.  But, as the budget season comes into full bloom, our advocacy efforts must now be increased.  On March 17, the Chief Justice will present her State of the Judiciary speech to the California Legislature, which will be coordinated with a Bench-Bar Coalition day of advocacy in Sacramento, the continuation of a coordinated effort between judges and lawyers to protect the ability of the courts to meet the needs of Californians.

As Chair of our statewide Trial Court Presiding Judges Advisory Committee, I have made repeated visits to representatives of the Legislature and the Governor’s Office – joined by many Presiding Judges and Judicial Council members – and those will continue until the June 15 budget deadline.  The value of our visits are often enhanced when we are joined by attorneys – from Santa Clara County and around the state.  Lawyers have a unique ability to communicate to Sacramento the pain that budget cuts have caused their individual clients, sometimes by presenting the clients themselves to describe their experiences directly.  Those real life constituent stories are the coin of the realm in Sacramento.  We need your continued help in providing them.

Thank you to all of those who have helped advocate for the courts.  Please continue your partnership with the judiciary to sustain the good fight to protect the courts, and the civil rights, on which all of us rely!

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