"We are rationing justice, and it has become more than a fiscal problem. It is, in my view, it is now a civil rights problem. ... We know we are denying the protections of an American democracy."
The rhetoric, justified or not, is flowing hard after Gov. Jerry Brown released a budget plan that, despite a $105 million increase in court funding, will do little to keep our court system from teetering on collapse. (Existing pension and benefit costs will eat up most of the increase.) Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye's rhetorical flourish was accompanied by her own plan, the "A Three-Year Blueprint for a Fully Functioning Judicial Branch."
The Courts' Carnage
Here are a few notes on the effect of the budget crisis, from the Chief Justice's plan:
- 51 courthouses closed;
- 205 courtrooms closed;
- 30 courts with reduced public service hours;
- 37 courts with reduced self-help/family law facilitator service;
- Less than $0.01 of every dollar in the general fund goes to the courts;
- Nearly a half-billion dollars in cuts in 2013 alone (after hundreds of millions in cuts previously);
- Local reserve funds, and other means of countering the cuts, are nearly exhausted;
- Current budget shortfall is $874.9 million
- 50 judgeships authorized in 2007 remain unfilled and unfunded;
Without additional funding, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye warned that additional court closures, layoffs, and delays for trials and divorce and custody matters would continue to grow.
How much is enough? Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye estimates that $266 million is needed just to "tread water."
Four Point Plan (With Catchy Names and Bullet Points!)
The four core elements of the Chief Justice's blueprint for fixing the court system include:
- Implement Access 3D
- Physical Access (keeping the doors actually open);
- Remote Access (allow users to conduct business online rather than in line);
- Equal Access (access for all, regardless of language, abilities, needs, and socio-economic level);
- Close the Trial Court Funding Gap
- Current workload and filings require $2.6 billion for a fully-functioning system;
- Trial courts get $1.5 billion in state funding, $200 million from other revenue sources (fines and fees);
- Exhausted reserve funds risk cash-flow and prevent replacement of failing equipment;
- Provide Critically Needed Judgeships
- The 50 already authorized, but not funded;
- 2012 study showed a need for 314 judges statewide;
- Two more appellate judges needed in Fourth Appellate District, Division Two
- Modernize Court Technology
- Paper-based court system is costly and inefficient;
- E-filing, online access to payments, filing, and court services is needed;
- Strategic plan for tech overhaul will be finalized in may 2014;
Not Going to Happen
You know that old saying about wishing in one hand and defecating in the other?
The Los Angeles Times reports that Gov. Brown's administration is standing firm on its modest funding increase, noting that the state's education system was even more devastated by the budget crisis. Lawmakers in the state Assembly and Senate voiced varying levels of support for the Chief Justice's plan, with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg giving vague agreement on the need for a fully-functioning system and Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) agreeing that the bare minimum $266 million "treading water" amount was appropriate.
- Year in Review 2013: Highlights From The Golden State (FindLaw's California Case Law Blog)
- Roundup: State Bar Profiles, Plastic Bags, and Weed Ordinances (FindLaw's California Case Law Blog)
- Committee Votes to Suspend Court Computer Modernization (FindLaw's California Case Law Blog)