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Budget woes inflict pain on state court system

The current round of state budget cuts has affected not only state workers, but also the employees of California ’s court system.

Beginning Sept. 16, California courts, facing an estimated $415 million in state budget cuts, will be closed on the third Wednesday of every month. The closure, ordered under the authority of the Judicial Council of California, will save an estimated $96 million statewide. But other cost-cutting measures will have to be taken to bridge the budget gap, and county courts already have been tightening their belts. In Nevada County , for example, the courts cut 7 percent of their workforce.

With the budget cutting has come criticism of the Administration of Courts (AOC), the staff arm of the Judicial Council, for its handling of the budget crisis.

Six Nevada County judges sent a letter to state officials asking why the AOC wasn’t ‘sharing in the pain’ of the shrinking budget.

Nevada County Superior Presiding Judge Sean Dowling mentioned that even “with more than 1,000 employees working from offices in San Francisco and Sacramento,” the AOC was recruiting fifty employees when the state’s 58 county courthouses were being forced to lay off employees and cut hours.

In an Aug. 2 opinion article in the Sacramento Bee, Sacramento Superior Court Judges Loren McMaster and Marianne Julliard also criticized the AOC. “Californians will lose access to their courts without a top-down review to see where budget savings could be achieved elsewhere. For example, the troubled billion-dollar-plus court computer system should be delayed or scrapped altogether.

Millions of dollars in the account for new courthouse construction could be used to keep the doors of existing courthouses open.”  

Besides attacking the billion-dollar computer system overhaul, called the California Case Management System or CCMS, the judges also were critical of the large numbers of AOC employees.  “In 2003-04 the Administrative Office of the Courts had 490 employees. Today it has mushroomed to more than 900 employees, a third of them paid more than $100,000,” they explained.

AOC spokesman Phil Carrizosa acknowledged that the AOC has increased the number of its employees, but said the the increase was justified “because of the additional responsibilities that have been assigned to us by the state Legislature.”

He also noted that the AOC has attempted to spread the cuts around.

Of the $425 million in budget cuts, some “$393 million was to come from the trial courts and $21 million from the state supreme courts, the state courts of appeal, the AOC, and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center.”

The AOC, he added, “tried to do all we could to minimize the impact of that roughly $400 million dollar budget cut. We’ve reallocated funds from different areas, to assist the trial courts. We’ve also raised a few court fees to increase revenue. We allocated $165 million from other funds and we projected to get about $46 million in new fee revenues. That’s a total of $212 million. So the trial courts are now going to have to come up with the rest of it, cause we’ve done all we can for them and one of the things that will help them with is court closures.”

The new responsibilities delegated to the AOC over the last 15 years included overseeing the over 450 county court houses and facilities, which required an entire new office, the Office of Court Construction and Management, as well as providing defense representation to the superior courts throughout the state if they were sued.
Carrizosa also said the CCMS is “designed to update all of the computer systems in each of the 58 superior courts to allow them to link together so they can exchange information and also to allow them to exchange information with other partners in the justice system, such as the law enforcement, attorney general’s office.” He noted that the AOC reallocated $105 million from CCMS to the trial courts.
“We’re putting CCMS essentially on life support for now. It’s still alive, but we’re gonna be holding off on much of the implantation and deployment to help out the trial courts,” he said.

“Within the agency, I’ll speak for the AOC here, we’ve also implemented a hiring freeze. We’re also subject to the mandatory furlough program. On Wednesday September 16, we will be closed.” He added that “actually, we’ve kind of started early. They’ve asked all the employees to start taking days off. My next day is Tuesday, August 11. That’s a day I’ll be off and I won’t be paid. I took another day in July, for which I won’t get paid. We’re sharing in the pain, as they say.”


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