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A final piece of the puzzle

Chief Justice Ronald George
Chief Justice, California Supreme Court

Over the past few years, California's judiciary, with the help of our sister branches of government, has undergone fundamental structural changes that have placed us in a far better position to meet the need of the public we serve for fair and accessible justice.

Underlying our ability to develop improved procedures and services for users of the court system has been a series of major changes in the structure of the judicial system. First, in 1997, the adoption of a system for state funding of the trial courts provided a stable and dependable source of income for the courts, as well as the means to have policy drive the administration of justice and promote equal access to justice. Prior to the enactment of that legislation, the courts often found themselves struggling simply to make ends meet.

The second major reform took place in 1998, when the electorate adopted Proposition 220, the constitutional amendment that allowed the trial courts of each county to unify into a single superior court. The judiciary's response was swift and universal: by the end of that year, the trial courts in 50 of the 58 counties had merged, and early last year I swore in the last four municipal court judges as members of a unified court, completing the transition from 220 California trial courts to 58 — one in each county.

I am equally pleased to announce the recent enactment of the Court Facilities Bill. This third landmark structural reform completes the process of transforming the trial courts from what were county components of our judicial branch into what is now an integrated, truly statewide judicial system.

The status of courthouse facilities had been the one final piece of the puzzle that was not yet in place. When state funding was adopted, the courthouses in which the trial courts performed their functions were expressly exempted from the state's control, and the question whether to relieve the counties of this obligation was left deliberately for a later day.

This action created a troubling and anomalous situation. The trial courts had become the state's responsibility, but the ownership and management of the buildings in which these courts continued to operate remained with the counties, which were no longer involved in the operations of the courts and thus had a diminishing interest in their welfare.

In October 2001, the Task Force on Court Facilities, created by the legislature and including diverse representatives from all three branches of government, issued its report after three years of study.

The report disclosed that 54 percent of court space is located in buildings that are rated either functionally deficient or marginal — some of them posing severe seismic or health problems to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers, and the court staffs who work in them. Significant repair, maintenance or renovation is required in more than 90 percent of the facilities — many of which suffer from inadequate security, dilapidated and deficient quarters, and facilities incapable of accommodating modern demands. In short, the survey of existing court space revealed an urgent need for remediation.

Senate Bill 1732, authored by Sen. Martha Escutia, chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, was signed into law in September by Gov. Gray Davis. This historic measure establishes a process to transfer ownership and management responsibility for trial court facilities to the state, under the direct oversight of the Judicial Council, over a period covering the years 2004 to 2007.

The act sets forth specific procedures and conditions for the transitional period and beyond. It raises penalty assessments and parking offense penalties, and creates a civil filing fee surcharge, all of which are to be deposited into a newly created state Courthouse Construction Fund to be used for the acquisition, rehabilitation and construction of court facilities.

Other amendments to the various penalties and fees were imposed to augment the General Fund, but the portion amended in accordance with the proposals of the Task Force on Court Facilities is earmarked solely for facilities.

The historic shift in obligations brought about by this enactment conforms to the state's assumption of responsibility to fund the courts. It recognizes that every fundamental aspect of the administration of justice in our system properly must be viewed as a statewide function.

The transfer of responsibility will permit our court system to integrate planning for court operations and court facilities and to evaluate needs and solutions on a statewide level. It will further enhance the judicial branch's role and its accountability to the public and to its sister branches of government.

The impact of the first two of these reforms — state trial court funding and unification — already has been widely felt across the system. They have enabled courts to make the best use of available judicial and staff resources and to provide new services for the public.

There are new developments in every segment of the judicial branch and of the legal profession. Having given you examples of some of these accomplishments, I hope they provide you with a sense of the initiative and energy being devoted to improving our legal and judicial systems in California.

This column is exerpted from the chief justice's annual State of the Judiciary address, delivered at the State Bar's Annual Meeting last month.

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