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State budget restores $105 million, but judicial branch says funding still falls short

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

The governor’s proposed budget for next fiscal year recommends an additional $105 million for the courts, but even so the judicial branch will need more money simply to tread water, the state’s top judge has warned.

Court budget cutsReleased Jan. 9, Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2014-15 budget proposal devotes an additional $100 million in ongoing money to trial court operations and an extra $5 million to the state-level judiciary. Although the funding boost is much needed, Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye cautioned that the judicial branch has far from recovered from the $1 billion in reductions it has weathered over the last six years.

Joined by lawmakers, Cantil-Sakauye made a plea on behalf of the courts during a Jan. 14 press conference in Sacramento, where she unveiled a “three-year blueprint” to restore access to justice in the state by boosting trial court funding. The blueprint cites the Legislative Analyst’s Office, which warned that courts may have to make further cuts because reserves used to offset reductions in previous years will not be available in 2014-15. The blueprint concludes that the judicial branch would need $161 million in additional money just to maintain the status quo. Fully funding the court would require $1.2 billion more over three years.

Cantil-Sakauye said she is “grateful and appreciative” of the governor's budget for the judicial branch, “but in all candor, meaningful justice requires more.”

Since 2008, 51 courthouses have shut their doors, 205 courtrooms have closed, 30 courts have reduced their public service hours and 37 courts have cut back their self-help and family law services.

“We are rationing justice. And it's become more than a physical problem. It is, in my view, now a civil rights problem. Because when we can no longer guarantee timely access to justice and we can no longer provide a litigant a courtroom in his or her community … then we know we are denying the protections of a democracy, an American democracy,” Cantil-Sakauye said during the press conference, held on the steps of the Stanley Mosk Library and Courts Building and attended by State Bar President Luis J. Rodriguez. “What good is a law if it can't be enforced?”

A report released in conjunction with the governor’s proposed budget acknowledges that 2014-15 “will be a challenging year for the trial courts as the one‑time mitigation measures will have been exhausted,” but suggests that the judicial branch needs to find ways to manage its rising employee costs.

“The Administration is committed to ongoing solvency of the state budget, which requires changing business as usual and implementing ongoing efficiencies within the Judicial Branch,” the report states. “The Judicial Branch must continue to implement uniform standards, employee compensation changes and operational efficiencies with the goal of increasing access to justice.”

But finding areas to trim has already proven difficult for California’s financially stretched courts, according to Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, who notes that the state and federal constitutions require that courts provide certain protections for all citizens.

“They're mandated to keep their doors open. They're mandated to provide access to justice to everybody who needs it, not only those who can afford to pay for it,” Evans said during the Jan. 14 press conference. “That mandate is very difficult to do when we don't give the courts the resources to meet that mandate.”