On the right track to fund courts
by Martha Escutia
When Gov. Wilson signed my court reform bill, AB
233, last month, Chief Justice Ron George promptly called it "the biggest
reform of California’s system of justice this century." Was the chief justice
exaggerating? Absolutely not. After decades of deteriorating courts, AB
233 is a truly historic reform that, as the new year starts, promises to
create a stable, long-term funding solution for our trial courts. The bill
will fundamentally change the way California runs, and funds, its courts.
AB 233 includes the following major benefits for the state, its 58 counties
and court systems:
Those of you who use our courts know just how badly they need the state’s
help. They have faced increasingly severe problems, including:
- It requires the state to assume full responsibility for funding trial
- It caps county responsibility for courts at the fiscal 1994-95 level
— saving them tens of millions of dollars this and every fiscal year.
- It constitutes the major local government relief program passed by the
legislature this year. Beginning July 1, it will reduce county contributions
for trial courts by $350 million, including $274 million to "equalize"
state funding for courts and $60 million (and growing) for cities by redirecting
100 percent of traffic citation revenues.
- It provides the Judicial Council with unprecedented power to require
every judicial officer in California to receive comprehensive anti-bias
- It gives the legislature broad new authority to control court spending
through a single budget oversight process.
- It establishes task forces on court employee issues and trial court facilities.
- It establishes a Civil Delay Reduction Team "strike force" to assist
courts in reducing delay in civil cases.
- It authorizes (via AB 420) the creation of 40 new judgeships, contingent
on the legislature making needed appropriations in future legislation.
- Inadequate funding, choking off other critical public services. Historically,
the state required its 58 counties to pay for most trial court operations.
Under this scheme, cash-strapped counties had to pick up two-thirds of
the trial court tab, adding to the deep cuts facing other vital programs.
The cuts facing local public services have been devastating. Despite these
cuts, the courts still have fallen behind. In the past two years alone,
the legislature had to pass emergency bills to literally prevent some courts
from shutting down.
- Uneven funding, leading to unequal justice. Inadequate funding has not
been the only problem facing the courts. There has also been a huge disparity
in the amounts counties spend on courts. This unequal funding has resulted
in unequal justice, based solely upon where you live. While you might face
a one-year wait in getting to trial in, say, Los Angeles County, that same
case might be heard, and resolved, within half the time in Marin County.
That’s not fair or acceptable.
- Unsafe courthouses lacking adequate security. Many of our courts are
dilapidated and dangerous. In San Bernardino, officials worry over seismic
studies suggesting their courthouse might collapse in an earthquake. In
San Luis Obispo, a judge, fearing for his safety but lacking money for
security, built a "bullet-proof" wall out of law books in front of his
bench. And in my own district, the Huntington Park courthouse turned a
tiny men’s bathroom into a judge’s chambers, and defendants are outrageously
paraded in chain-gangs in front of jurors, due to lack of space.
- Soaring caseloads, grinding justice to a halt. Our trial courts now face
more than 9 million filings a year, court of appeal filings are up 24 percent
since 1987, and Supreme Court filings have nearly doubled in the last two
decades. Civil trials are routinely postponed for months or years because
lawyers literally cannot find courtrooms and judges to hear their cases.
Meanwhile, the "three strikes and you’re out" felony sentencing law has
exploded the criminal dockets.
- Evidence of real and perceived bias. Recent studies have highlighted
serious problems of bias, and perceived bias, in some trial courts. Among
other things, the Judicial Council’s laudable report on "Racial and Ethnic
Bias in the Courts" recently found that Latino and African-American youth
are more likely to be arrested, less likely to make bail or be released
while awaiting trial. The report found that our minority youth "are more
likely to be convicted and sentenced to secure detention."
- A shockingly homogeneous judiciary. The Judicial Council’s bias report
also illustrated just how racially skewed the judiciary in the world’s
most ethnically diverse state remains. A whopping 87 percent of the state’s
approximately 1,600 judges are white, while whites makes up less than 57
percent of the general population. As the report noted, "The causes of
this imbalance aside, its effect is to create the impression of a justice
system run by and for white Californians."
AB 233 attacks each of these problems. As noted above, AB 233 targets
each of these problems forcefully — by requiring the state to begin paying
for the lion’s share of trial court costs, by freeing up over a third of
a billion dollars every year for our ailing cities and counties, by making
our judges better trained about fairness and diversity issues, and by helping
to cut court delay.
Of course, this bill will not be a panacea for all the intractable problems
that have faced our ailing justice system for so long. No single piece
of legislation can be. However, I am confident that this "justice reform
of the century" will help put California on the right track to rebuilding
a court system it can be proud of in the new millennium.
Assemblywoman Martha Escutia, D-Huntington Park, is chair
of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.