Our View: Courts are on life support, need more funds

January 26, 2014 

Justice doesn’t come cheap, and California’s top court official has put out a price tag for the Legislature and public to ponder – $1.2 billion.

That’s how much more the judicial branch needs annually by 2016-17 to recover from four years of budget cuts and restore a fully functioning court system, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said last week. More immediately, she is lobbying legislators to boost funding for trial courts in the 2014-15 budget.

Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing $105 million more for the courts. But Cantil-Sakauye asserts – and the Legislative Analyst’s Office agrees – that because the courts can’t dip into reserves as they did the last two years, that would be a net reduction. It will take another $161.5 million just to “tread water” and keep the current level of services, plus cover an increase in employee health and retirement costs, the chief justice says. Without that bump, trial courts would have to close more courtrooms and furlough more employees.

During the budget crunch, more than 200 courtrooms were closed, other courts imposed shorter hours and hundreds of employees were laid off or not replaced. Since criminal cases get priority, civil justice has been hit hardest.

While there are many competing needs and demands to weigh, legislators should find a way to provide more for the courts. What they shouldn’t do is increase court fees and fines, which were jacked up during the recession.

Cantil-Sakauye is right to say we don’t want “pay to play” – one justice system for the well-to-do and another for everyone else.

When Cantil-Sakauye became chief justice three years ago, she inherited a court system in financial crisis. The Judicial Council must accept some responsibility for that mess. Before pulling the plug in 2012, it wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a badly botched statewide computer system designed to bring the courts into the 21st century. There’s more work to do to make the courts more efficient.

At the same time, Cantil-Sakauye and the rest of the Judicial Council are embarking on a major change in how money is divvied up among trial courts across the 58 counties. The new formula, based on workload, appears to be fairer.

The current formula is pegged to what each county court system was getting in 1998, when the state took over funding. That locked in an uneven playing field that hurt counties such as San Joaquin. The change is being phased in so that counties that would lose under the new formula can adapt. But for justice to work, the overall pie needs to grow. The state cannot afford to do nothing.

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