EDITORIAL: Valley Democrats help send bad bill to Brown

The Fresno BeeSeptember 24, 2013 

It's no secret that statewide budget cuts have badly hurt the court system in the central San Joaquin Valley and throughout California.

In Fresno County, for example, courthouses in Coalinga, Firebaugh, Reedley, Sanger, Selma, Kingsburg and Clovis were shuttered last year -- inconveniencing thousands of people and driving up costs for police departments forced to send officers to Fresno to testify.

But smart people often come up with ways to make things work in tough situations.

In April, traffic judges in downtown Fresno began using video-conferencing to hold court in Coalinga and Mendota. And up north in Placer County, court administrators contracted with a private firm for court reporting service to shave costs and avoid closing more courtrooms and laying off more employees.

Ten court reporters lost their jobs, but contracting out saves the Placer County court $600,000 a year and keeps courtrooms open. It also resulted in cheaper but more extensive court reporting services.

These savings in Placer County, however, didn't please Assembly Member Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont.

He introduced and passed through the Legislature a bill that would prevent any court in California from making such adjustments ever again, no matter the situation.

Sponsored by the California Court Reporters Association and the Service Employees International Union, Assembly Bill 566 makes it prohibitively expensive and difficult for courts to contract out for any services "historically" performed by court employees. Courts would not be able to contract out for court reporting, security, janitorial services or even for the technical expertise to upgrade computer systems.

In a letter opposing the bill, Orange County court officials said that the language in the bill is so restrictive it would require that court to undo technology upgrades that allow litigants and lawyers to file papers electronically and would "go back to a paper world and hire court employees to handle paper."

The Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the state courts, opposes AB 566. So do the vast majority of county court administrators.

The Judicial Council estimates that the Wieckowski bill would cost the struggling court system an extra $6 million a year.

It would also force courts to forgo potential savings worth untold millions more.

Despite overwhelming opposition from the judicial branch, Wieckowski's AB 566 zipped out of the Assembly and the Senate on heavily party-line votes. Legislators who voted for this turkey include Assembly members Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno; Adam Gray, D-Merced; and Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield.

To avoid alienating their powerful labor allies, these lawmakers have sent a bill to the governor that would reduce access to justice for the public.

Gov. Brown should stand with the public and justice and veto AB 566.

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