The Budget for California Courts: A Step in the Right Direction

I have written before for the Contra Costa Lawyer about the Conference of California Bar Associations (CCBA).  Briefly, the CCBA is a statewide conference in which our local bar association (the CCCBA) participates.  Our Contra Costa delegation, and delegations throughout the state, work together to write resolutions within our respective delegations, and these resolutions are heavily vetted through debate by lawyers from all over the state at our annual conference.  

Every March or April, we also have the opportunity to participate in Legislative Day at the State Capitol.  Legislative Day is our opportunity to take proposed legislation, that has been sponsored by state assembly members and senators, and present it to various other state legislators in the hope that our proposed legislation will gain momentum, get voted on, and ultimately pass the state legislature.  The CCBA has been instrumental in having a substantial number of new laws, or amendments to laws, passed and signed into law by the Governor. 

When we attend Legislative Day, we have various informational meetings throughout the day. This year, we received substantial information about the California Judicial Branch, and what Governor Newsom’s budget priorities may be for the Judicial Branch for fiscal year 2019 – 2020. 

As attorneys, we likely have formulated at least some opinion about the state of the court, the future of the court, and what the future of the law may be.  We know that the courts never seem to have enough funding, but we may not be able to quantify or fully identify why we feel that way.  Perhaps, we have seen the results of insufficient funding, but we are not sure what is the cause or reason for the insufficient funding.  

Some may be aware of the California judicial system budget cut from $4 billion in fiscal year 2012 to $3 billion in fiscal year 2013.[1]  Since that time, many attorneys, lobbyists, and even the delegates of the CCBA have been fighting to regain some of this funding.  

At Legislative Day, we learned that the Governor’s proposed budget for the Judicial Branch includes $275.2 million in new General Fund monies to support trial court operations, efficiencies, and innovations, for a total budget of $3.16 billion.  This is definitely a step in the right direction, and one to be thankful for, but it is still a bit of a tough pill to swallow that the judicial system is only allocated 1.5% of the general fund if you count the newly proposed funds of $275.2 million.  

Of the additional $275.2 million, it is proposed that $75 million will be allocated over two years by the Judicial Council to develop, implement, operate, or evaluate pretrial decision-making pilots in 8 to 10 courts.  $20 million will be allocated to dependency counsel to reduce the average attorney caseload statewide from 210 clients to 186 clients per attorney.  Clearly the decrease in the amount of clients per attorney is warranted, but 186 clients is still a substantial amount of clients for one attorney to represent.  

$23.2 million will be allocated to replace outdated case management systems in 10 trial courts (Amador, Colusa, Contra Costa, Lassen, Marin, Mariposa, Mono, Nevada, Shasta, and Solano).  $20.5 million will be allocated to information technology initiatives. $20.2 million will be allocated to extend the life of trial court facilities and avoid adverse impacts on court operations and public access.  $52.5 million will be allocated to address anticipated revenue shortfalls due to lower filing fee and criminal assessment revenues.  $63.8 million will be allocated to language access, employee health and retirement costs, judicial compensation, trial court security and equipment, and enacted legislation.  

Again, these are all steps in the right direction, but there are budgetary issues that have not been addressed by the proposal.  For example, the 1% cap on trial court reserves still needs to be addressed and adjusted.  Adjusting the 1% cap would enable courts to better maintain public service levels when unanticipated costs and economic downturn occur.  Currently, courts that maintain more than the 1% cap receive less funding because they have more money.  This does not incentivize courts to try to retain funds and manage money more efficiently; it does the exact opposite.  As a consequence, many trial courts are forced to borrow money to pay payroll to court employees in July (the beginning of the fiscal year) because only the 1% cap has been retained, and additional funding has not yet come through.

In addition, approximately $36.5 million of additional funding is needed to fund 25 previously approved but unfunded judgeships.  This is an important oversight considering the fact that courts are currently facing an urgent need for judges, especially in counties where there has been a significant population boom.  

According to the Judicial Council’s Fact Sheet, “New Judgeships,”[2]as of the end of 2018, San Bernardino County experienced 13% population growth in the last decade and is currently operating with 69% of the judges it needs.  Riverside County has recently experienced 30% population growth, and similarly is operating with approximately 69% of the judges it needs. Fresno is operating with approximately 86% of the judges it needs, and there are other counties with similar needs. Ultimately, it is our clients who bear the ultimate cost of having an insufficient number of judges to adequately serve the community.  Family law matters, domestic and workplace violence issues, housing disputes, business disputes all get delayed, and the burden on the criminal courts is substantial. 

So what’s next?  The Judicial Council continues to diligently work to have the approved, but unfunded judgeships funded.  Attorneys and lobbyists continue to request additional funding for the courts.  The CCBA also requests and lobbies for additional funding for the courts every year at Legislative Day.  While we have a long way to go, hopefully the Governor’s new proposal to allow some additional funding to the courts is a trend that continues.  

If you are interested in being an advocate for changes and improvements to the law, and meeting with the people in charge of making these decisions on an annual basis, I highly encourage you to reach out to the Contra Costa County Bar Association about how you can get involved in the CCBA.  We have been able to achieve many positive changes, but we can always use additional help. The future of the law and access to justice for those in our community depends on the efforts of many, including those in our own community.