Chief Justice Thanks Lawmakers for Judicial Budget that Doesn't Even “Tread Water”

Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye damned state lawmakers and Governor Jerry Brown with faint praise, thanking them for their efforts and a judicial budget that doesn’t even let the judiciary “tread water.”

“While I appreciate the work of the Governor and the Legislature in increasing branch funding, especially given the context of this budget, the state revenues, the demands and the needs—unfortunately it is not enough to provide timely, meaningful justice to the public,”  Cantil-Sakauye said in a prepared statement.

Lawmakers in recent years have balanced the state budget, in part, by slashing $1.1 billion from the court system since 2008. That translated into the shuttering of 51 courthouses and 205 courtrooms, thousands of layoffs, cuts in service, curtailed courthouse hours, long lines at clerk windows, higher fees and delayed court dates.

A plan (pdf) offered by the judiciary calculated that it would need $1.2 billion over three years to restore justice to the system, including $612 million the first year. It would take $266 million just to “tread water.”

Instead, the budget gives the courts $129 million in new revenue from the state’s General Fund. Last year, the courts burned through a $250 million reserve to pay for operational expenses.

Meanwhile, specialty courts dealing with drugs, the homeless, mental health, youth and domestic violence have been beaten down at venues throughout the state. Around two dozen “critically needed” courthouse construction projects have been put on hold. Twenty-six courts have reduced security.  

Part of the courts’ problems is of their own making. The judicial system has been wracked for years by an internal struggle between trial courts and the centralized judicial bureaucracy, as well as between the individual courts, over policy, governance and distribution of funds. All of this was exacerbated by the collapse of a $1 billion computer project in 2012 that was meant to unify the myriad judicial case management systems across the state.

The $156.3 billion budget signed into law last week includes $76.6 billion for K-12 education, $1.6 billion for a rainy-day fund, $1.6 billion for accelerated debt payments, $250 million for high-speed rail and $59 million for the underfunded teachers’ retirement system.

After years of hacking operating budgets for government agencies to cover annual  deficits of up to $25 billion, the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office projects the state will have $2.5 billion in revenues beyond what the governor’s balanced-budget anticipates.

The bulging coffers, courtesy of a recovering economy and tax increases, have made for a smooth, respectful budget process—but not a fully functioning judiciary.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Brown Signs $156 Billion California Budget (by William Dotinga, Courthouse News Service)

New California Budget Fails to Ease Court Woes, Chief Justice Says (by Maura Dolan, Los Angeles Times)

Chief Justice: Add $1.2 Billion to Brown’s Court Budget to Avoid Closures, Layoffs (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

A Three–Year Blueprint for a Fully Functioning Judicial Branch (pdf)

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