Judiciary Gets $150M Boost in California's New Budget

    Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (US FWN100™ '07) of the California Supreme Court


Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (US FWN100™ '07) of the California Supreme Court

In his final state budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday delivered good news to California’s judicial branch—an extra $150 million in funding and a pledge to help underfunded trial courts.

The budget infusion for the courts is the largest proposed by the governor since the recession, and it reflects the state’s rosy economic status. Brown’s overall $131.7 billion general fund spending plan marks a 4.1 percent increase over the current fiscal year and includes a $13.5 billion rainy-day reserve.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye (US FWN100™ '07)  said the governor’s proposal was “strong” for the judiciary.

“With this proposed budget, the courts will be better equipped to truly provide access to justice for all,” she said in a prepared statement.

The additional court funding comes with strings attached, a condition common in Brown’s annual budget proposals for the judicial branch.

Here’s how the $150 million breaks down:

—$47.8 million for the most underfunded trial courts in the state.

The judicial branch determines how much money a particular court needs based on a formula tied to caseloads and county population. It’s a controversial practice.

Critics say the formula doesn’t always accurately reflect how busy a particular court or judge is. The formula has boosted funding for a number of historically underfunded courts, particularly those in the Central Valley. But it has also cut funding for others, including San Francisco Superior Court, which furloughed staff, cut clerk hours and asked judges to give up a day’s pay each month last year to cover a $5.3 budget deficit.

Initial estimates suggest that 30 courts will each get a share of the money. The Judicial Council will consider changes to the formula at its meeting Friday.

—$75 million in funding for Judicial Council priorities.

Although the proposal calls this money discretionary, it says the administration “anticipates” the funding will be spent on recommendations made by the Commission on the Future of California’s Court System. The commission, led by Associate Justice Carol Corrigan, issued a report last year that recommended, among other things, expanding the use of technology, reallocating vacant judgeships and reducing certain misdemeanors to infractions.

—$19.1 million to expand services for pro se litigants in trial courts.

Other allocations include: $4 million to make available more interpreters in civil matters; $3.4 million for a five-court pilot project creating a civil court program to handle minor traffic violations; $500,000 for programs that train volunteers who are assigned by juvenile court judges to help foster care youth; and $200,000 to expand a registry that contains records of protective and restraining orders.

Brown also committed to completing courthouse projects in Imperial, Riverside, Shasta, Siskiyou, Tuolumne, Glenn, Sacramento, Sonoma and Stanislaus counties through 2020. Those projects stalled when revenues from court fees and penalties failed to come in as high as projected. The governor will now allow the judicial branch to pay for the construction with lease-revenue bonds backed by the state’s general fund.

The budget does not include money for new judgeships or for easing retirement qualification rules for judges—two proposals now being considered in the Legislature.

What about all that marijuana revenue?

Beyond courts, the governor’s proposal anticipates that a new 15 percent excise tax on marijuana will generate $175 million by July and another $643 million through the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Proposition 64, the 2016 initiative that legalized the sale of recreational marijuana in California, specifies that tax money will be spent on treatment programs, research and drug education. Excise tax collection and local regulations are in their first days, the proposal defers all related spending plans to May when the governor releases his revised budget.

No rush on naming Justice Werdegar’s replacement.

The governor acknowledged the months-old vacancy on the California Supreme Court. Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar announced in March that she would retire, and she left the bench at the end of August. With no action by Brown, the court has relied on pro tem justices, pulled from the appellate court ranks, to fill her spot.

“This is not something that I want to take too quickly because it’s very important,” said Brown, who is termed out of office next January. “I’ve appointed three and the fourth could be very decisive so I want to understand how that … could work.”

News Story from The Recorder