Sunday, July 24, 2011

The coming bankruptcy of a court system - the end of a 40-year California government process

California's budget has become a serious problem for some serious people - our judges.

Of course, like the other two California government branches and our State's finances, our court system has been thoroughly screwed up. And like California government generally, the process of screwing it all up began in the 1970's.

Nobody remembers low cost local justice courts that used to handle infractions, misdemeanors, and small claims. They were presided over by a Justice of the Peace, frequently a non-lawyer because the pay was low. In 1974, after a unanimous California Supreme Court held that it was a violation of the right to due process to allow a non-lawyer justice to preside over a case that could result in jail time, California gradually eliminated the justice courts. It gave attorneys an opportunity to create more jobs for themselves.

These courts could have, of course, continued to try infractions and small claims at a low cost. But in the 1970's all three branches of California government were infected with runaway stupidity.

Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown was elected Governor in 1974 and the justice court issue, like runaway taxes leading to Proposition 13, wasn't on his agenda then. Instead he wanted to put a political stamp of his own on the state's justice system and in 1977 appointed Rose Bird Chief Justice which like most things Brown did then was politically stupid and governmentally inept. In 1986 Bird became the only Chief Justice in California history to be removed from office by the voters.

Five years later, in 1991, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Ronald George chief justice. From a law standpoint, George was well qualified. He was first appointed to the bench by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972 and received four more promotions from governors Jerry Brown, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson. When Wilson appointed George Chief Justice in 1991, the relationship between the Supreme Court and the Legislature was strained. Since then, in addition to showing excellent legal scholarship, George restored that relationship.

George, who retired at the beginning of this year, noted he did so with the satisfaction that the California court system has the respect of the Legislature and Governor as a coequal branch of government. (Since the public's approval rating of the Legislature and Governor are, and have been for years, at the "those morons" rating, I'm not sure that's good, but....)

One other thing that George accomplished is to take control of the courts away from the 58 counties to, according to George, ensure consistent and equitable budgets for the entire judiciary.

And he became the manager of a multi-billion dollar courtroom construction program funded by a special bond issue approved by California's dimwit voters.

George became one of the State's more powerful bureaucrats through the Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 when the Administrative Office of the Courts, which the Chief Justice runs, became a major state agency now with 1,700 judges and 21,000 other employees spending $4 billion a year.

When The Great California Slump reduced General Fund Disbursements 19.2%, from a high of $107.3 billion in 2007-08 to a low of $86.7 billion in 2009-10, things had to give on the court scene. As noted by columnist Dan Walters:
As the state's fiscal situation deteriorated, George found himself vying with advocates for schools, prisons, health and welfare programs and other claimants on a much-diminished state revenue stream. Standing with George and Cantil-Sakauye on Thursday, Schwarzenegger slyly alluded to George's ceaseless pleas for more money.

George also found himself dealing with rebellious lower court judges who complained that they were being forced to close the courtrooms to save money as the AOC expanded its staff and as a troubled statewide court computer system piled up costs.
The Cantil-Sakauye mentioned in the quote is current Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, George's replacement. George and the 1974 court left her with a mess not unlike the mess Jerry Brown left himself.

The computer system, known as the California Court Management System, a symbol George's efforts to centralize judicial management bypassing locally elected judges, resulted in the Alliance of California Judges, local judges who sponsored legislation that would affirm the right of local courts to manage their affairs, legislation that failed this year.

State Auditor Elaine Howle issued a critical report:
AOC has consistently failed to develop accurate cost estimates. Projected in 2004, the AOC's earliest available cost estimate for the system was $260 million, an amount that grew substantially to $1.9 billion based on the AOC's January 2010 estimate. Over the same period, complete deployment to the superior courts has been postponed by seven years, from fiscal year 2008-09 to fiscal year 2015-16.
After that report came out, the chief administrator of the AOC William Vickery retired. But that didn't solve the problem for Cantil-Sakauye who Friday had to give the bad news to the judges - their once $4 billion budget was now more like $3 billion and $350 million was to be spread to the local courts.

"It has never been worse," said Cantil-Sakauye.

The cuts will close some courthouses including some George's bond issue built, reduce court hours, and delay civil trials, custody decisions and divorces in some counties. Local judges attacked. From the LA Times:
San Francisco County Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein took jabs at the statewide administrative office that runs the court system and lectured judicial leaders about their solemn duties.

She said her court has sent layoff notices to 41% of staff and plans to close 25 of 63 courtrooms while the Administrative Office of the Courts has been devising grandiose schemes that "are sucking tens of million of dollars from the trial courts."
The San Francisco court will be more seriously impaired than many other superior courts because it previously spent all its reserve funds to avoid layoffs. It now will lose nearly $5 million in addition to a previous deficit of $8 million paid from reserves. Most other courts figured out how to minimize the expected long term impact of The Great California Slump by retaining at least some reserves.

Feinstein did not explain why the San Francisco court management made such a stupid choice.

Not all the courts have been quite as foolish. According to a Redding Record Searchlight article headlined Judicial council spares counties cuts for 2012-13:
Shasta County Court Executive Officer Melissa Fowler-Bradley said Friday the judicial council's action was "pretty much" what she expected, adding the budget cut could have been a lot worse.

Still, she said, it's not going to be easy to handle.

Earlier this month, Fowler-Bradley said the court's five-day-a-week branch in Burney will be open only Wednesdays after Sept. 9. That change is expected to save about $120,000 annually in personnel costs.

But that leaves her with $620,000 to cut from the Superior Court's $15.5 million budget.

"It's going to be tough," she said, though she's hopeful that layoffs and work furloughs can be avoided.
But then there's this from an Associated Press article:
Then there's San Joaquin County, the crime-plagued capital of the Central Valley, home to Stockton, always among the top ten cities in foreclosure rates. Among other significant cuts to its overwhelmed court system, San Joaquin is planning to stop deciding all small claims cases. More than 3,000 were filed last year.

The county is pleading with state court leaders for extra funding so it can reopen its Tracy courthouse and restart hearing small claims cases.

"It's horrible for litigants," Presiding Judge Robin Appel said. "These people simply will not have their day in court."
So in 1996 George had to solve the problem of lack of respect by the Legislature and Governor brought on by Brown the last time around. Now Cantil-Sakauye has to solve the problems left behind by George's centralization of power at the state level, while dealing with the results of The Great California Slump.

Perhaps it's time to revisit 1974 and the subsequent decisions to close the locally controlled Justice Court system. Maybe it's time to find a less expensive way to deal with small claims, divorces under our no-fault law, building code violations, landlord-tenant disputes, infractions, and maybe even some misdemeanors where the penalty is only fines.

And maybe we ought to get rid of any prosecutions under State law for violations related to marijuana. Let the feds clog their courts.

Or we can just watch our jurists attack each other while that branch of our government fails to serve us. That sounds so much more like California in the 21st Century.

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