Navigating Challenging Seas

There is an oft-quoted proverb that says “smooth seas don’t make skillful sailors.” If the inverse is true, that “skillful sailors are made in rough seas,” then, given the choppy budgetary and labor waters that Contra Costa Superior Court is now traversing, we are making a lot of skilled mariners out of our judges, administrators, and staff.

The court’s challenges are ongoing or recurring, and are also being experienced in many other courts in California. These challenges include:

  • No funding for employee cost-of-living increases, despite the fact that virtually all other state-funded agencies are provided funding for this purpose;
  • New funding cuts, while the state continues to experience record surpluses;
  • Reduced collections due to California’s Traffic Amnesty Program; and
  • A very low cap on court reserves that leaves courts unable to carry over unused funds to address planned projects or unexpected needs.

The result of these factors is that the court is now poorer than it was last year, with funding down by over 6%. The court’s current funding is even lower than it was two years ago. In and of themselves, these drops are not large enough to merit a mention in the Contra Costa Lawyer, especially given far larger reductions managed by the court in the last several years. The complicating cross current is that our four-year labor contracts expired on September 30. Our court employees waited patiently through the state’s budget crisis with furloughs, layoffs, and 25% fewer staff to process the daily work. With state and local employees now getting raises, and even workers in some better funded courts getting salary increases, the patience of our staff to continue waiting appears over.

The staff’s long-deferred needs, and the court’s worsening fiscal situation create a dilemma. None argue more forcefully than our judges that our staff, which has worked harder than ever to serve the public, deserves a raise. With no financial assistance coming from Sacramento or San Francisco to assist us, however, the simple math is that any increase we do provide will require further cuts to operations, and this could again affect services. Given how lean our current staffing is, these solutions don’t offer great appeal.

So negotiations have begun, and a shadow over the bargaining table is that employees in Santa Clara Superior Court, facing some of the same difficult math that we face, recently went out on strike for eight days. That event has created delays that are still being experienced by court users in that county. Needless to say, our intent is not to have the same result here in Contra Costa, if possible.

In these times, it would be easy to just tread water and make no progress toward improved access to justice. In the pages of this edition of the annual Bench/Bar Edition, we hope you will find that Contra Costa Superior Court continues working to become more efficient, expand and improve services, and improve technologies. Years of tough sailing have made us determined and more skillful sailors. And you, the members of the Contra Costa County Bar Association, have been true shipmates with us on this voyage.

Thank you.

Stephen Nash serves as the Executive Officer of the Superior Court of Contra Costa County. Prior to his current appointment, he served as the Executive Officer for the Superior Court of San Bernardino County, and before that, as the Chief Financial Officer for the California Administrative Office of the Courts.