Dan Walters: Court finance change is a debacle

FresnoJune 29, 2014 

When the Legislature and then-Gov. Pete Wilson agreed in 1997 that the state would assume the entire cost of financing California's largest-in-the-nation court system, judges rejoiced.

It was a big win for Ron George, whom Wilson had appointed as the state's chief justice a year earlier, and he hailed "a stable and adequate source of funding" as "one of the most important reforms in the California justice systems in the 20th century."

What seemed like a good idea at the time, however, has become a classic example of how political decisions often carry unintended consequences.

The takeover created a very large state agency that must compete politically with schools, colleges, prisons, health services and myriad other claimants on the state's always-limited revenues. And the judicial branch has been losing that zero-sum game.

Between 2008 and 2012, court financing was whacked by more than $700 million. Dozens of courtrooms were shuttered due to a lack of funds, even though courts dipped into construction funds, spent down their reserves, furloughed or laid off employees, and closed their doors on certain days of the week.

One local court even staged a garage sale to raise money and keep its judges and employees on the job.

However, as a surge of revenues drives overall state spending to record levels, the court system's financial woes have continued. They are receiving just a fraction of the new funds that George's successor, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, says are needed to prevent further cutbacks.

Gov. Jerry Brown has not been particularly sympathetic to Cantil-Sakauye's pleas for more money, telling her, she says, that the courts need to become more efficient.

Some of the court system's problems are self-inflicted.

The State Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts, both headed by Cantil-Sakauye, wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on an inoperable case management system and have been engaged in a running battle with a band of rebel judges who say the AOC is a bloated and arrogant bureaucracy.

The impact is being felt mostly on the civil side of courts because criminal cases command priority for restricted judicial resources. It can take literally years for a civil case to get a trial date.

Bottom line: The shift to state support was supposed to bring financial stability to the courts, but instead has brought much higher instability.

It wasn't the first time a sweeping policy backfired: The disastrous 1996 energy "deregulation" scheme is another classic example. And it won't be the last.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is on the verge of passing a bill — pushed by unions and opposed by judges — that would make the court system's financial travails even worse by making it more difficult for them to use private contractors for some services.

 

Dan Walters writes for The Bee's Capitol bureau. E-mail: dwalters@sacbee.com; mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852.

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