May 16, 2012

Governor’s new budget would slash more than a half billion dollars from the cash-starved judicial branch

As recently reported in The Recorder, KQED and elsewhere, Governor Brown’s revised 2012-2013 state budget would slash a further $544 million from the judicial branch’s $3.6 billion annual budget, this in addition to the $653 million in cuts the courts have already sustained since 2008. As we have frequently noted, those past cuts have led to layoffs and furloughs of court staff, hiring freezes, shorter hours and closures of courtrooms. The new cuts will force courts with cash reserves to rely heavily upon them, and will also dip into the courts’ construction fund, requiring the delay of all but a handful of the 38 construction and renovation projects slated for the next fiscal year.

This latest round of cuts has resulted in an outcry from all corners of the legal community. The Chief Justice issued a statement calling the cuts “‘devastating and disheartening.’” She noted they “‘will seriously compromise the public’s access to their courts and our ability to provide equal access to justice throughout the state.’” As reported by KQED, Jon Streeter, president of the State Bar, called the cuts “‘unsustainable.’” Former state senator Joe Dunn, now the State Bar’s executive director, said: “‘Our state judiciary is being economically starved to death. We’re at a point where it’s reasonable to ask whether recovery is even possible.’” And framing the issue even more starkly, San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein said, “‘It has reached the point where we are becoming a failed state. . . . When you allow two branches of government to kill the third, we start resembling countries that I don’t think we ever envisioned our state would become.’”

From the Governor’s perspective, further cuts to court funding are preferable to cuts to other public services. Indeed, the Recorder quotes the Governor’s finance director, Ana Matosantos, as saying the Governor’s plan consciously chooses to use local courts’ cash reserves to help cover the budget shortfall. As a result, courts with cash reserves will be required to rely on them, while the Administrative Office of the Courts likely will allocate a larger proportion of the annual budget to those courts lacking any significant reserves. Aside from the obvious problem of soon leaving all California courts without any cash reserves to address future budget cuts and other emergencies, some commentators have suggested the Governor’s plan has another flaw: it would reward inefficiency by punishing well-managed courts by depriving them of their cash reserves while, at the same time, it disproportionately benefits other, less well-managed courts that lack significant reserves.

The Judicial Council has called an emergency meeting for Thursday morning in Sacramento to discuss the Governor’s revised budget. One wonders whether the Council might at this point consider a lawsuit by the judicial branch asserting that the executive and legislative branches have a constitutional obligation to adequately fund the courts, and cannot impair the judicial branch’s ability to function by cutting its funding below a certain level.

UPDATE: In the May 21 issue of the Daily Journal [subscription required], Don DeBenedictis reports that the Chief Justice recently spoke to a group of Orange County business and policy leaders, telling them that due to recent budget cuts, the courts are “‘slowly withering away.’” She added that the Governor’s new round of budget cuts pose a “‘great risk to the civil caseload,’” explaining that court staffers working on civil cases “‘are the first people to be fired, the first people to be laid off.’”

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