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Wanted: Stable court funding

By Ronald M. George
Chief Justice, California Supreme Court

Chief Justice Ronald M. George
Chief Justice George

This past year has been a turbulent time for the courts, as for all of state government and the nation as a whole. The difficult budget challenges have highlighted the urgency of determining whether the many reforms that have been made to our court system over the past several years are having the hoped-for effects.

Although we were successful in mitigating the impact of the fiscal crisis, courts were not left unscathed. Far from it. The judicial branch was not immune to the general fiscal downturn affecting government operations, and like others we must learn to do more with less.

Our final budget for the present fiscal year contains some $85 million in unallocated reductions for the trial courts, and $8.5 million in reductions for the appellate courts, the Judicial Council, the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center, plus a further reduction of $11 million in court security costs.

The projected new fee revenue is likely to fall short because of belated approval of the budget. At the same time, civil filings, which had been on a slight downward trend, have begun to increase once again.

The budget crisis has provided a strong incentive to consider what further steps need to be taken to ensure stable and adequate funding for our judicial system.

We already have a sense of what a stable, statewide funding source can accomplish: the administration of justice has become more equitable across the state, and sharing best practices and approaches in areas such as technology and purchasing have provided tangible rewards. Courts statewide are better equipped to monitor expenditures, to quantify and respond to the needs of the public, and to plan for the future.

At the same time, the current uncertainty in the state’s overall budget situation — and its impact on our courts — have made it all too clear that we have not yet fully achieved our goals. Stable and adequate funding is so integral to the successful administration of justice that we should not have to debate it anew each budget cycle.

Simply increasing fees is definitely not the answer. Many of the recently imposed fees were set and instituted with the cooperation of bar leaders in recognition of the need to ensure that courts were not stripped of essential resources.

But we are revisiting some of the fee changes that were increased in unexpected ways to see whether we can return to the original agreement, and examining whether the overall administration of the fee schedule can be simplified and improved.

Fees, fines, and penalties have a place in court funding. But courts cannot and should not be expected to fund themselves. A fully functioning and accessible system of justice is essential not only for those who appear at the courthouse door, but for all of society.

Every Californian, not just those who enter the courthouse doors, should be considered a direct user and beneficiary of the judicial system.

A basic premise underlying the shift to state funding has been that justice must be administered equally across the state. Courts must be considered and treated as part of the critical infrastructure of government, not as a pay-as-you-go enterprise whose fortunes ebb and flow with “consumer demand.”

At the same time, courts must be fiscally responsible. Unification and state funding have required courts to approach budgeting in a more uniform fashion. For the first time, significant in-depth analysis can be done, resulting in the elimination of duplication and a firmer sense of overall needs as well as local needs. This has enabled us to develop branch-wide recommendations during the state budget process.

The failure to enforce court orders imposing fines and fees undermines the judicial system not simply because of the ensuing loss of revenue, but also because it diminishes respect for the courts and their role. The Judicial Council and its staff arm, the Administrative Office of the Courts, have been focusing on creating and expanding better ways to recover court fines and fees.

For example, many courts have facilitated the payment of fines and fees, including providing services in the courthouse that enable a litigant to set up a payment plan to accommodate his or her budget, thus increasing the likelihood of collection with less expense and effort.

We continue to provide for waiver of fees where they would otherwise conflict with our paramount goal of ensuring access to the courts.

Senate Bill 940, authored by Sen. Martha Escutia and just signed by the governor establishes California’s first statewide system for collecting court-ordered fines, fees and penalties. The bill initially will require the Judicial Council, in coordination with the counties, to adopt guidelines for a comprehensive program and each superior court to develop in cooperation with its local county a plan to implement those guidelines.

California’s courts are taking strong measures to ensure that court orders are obeyed and the rule of law respected. This is part of a nationwide effort. It is estimated that nationally the amount of uncollected court-ordered penalties exceeds $5 billion.

Because adequate and stable funding for the judicial branch is so essential, I will soon convene a working group including bar and court leaders to take a fresh look at what we can do to promote the long-term stability of court funding. For example, policy- and workload-driven funding formulas could help standardize the process.

Other sources of dedicated revenues beyond fines, fees and penalties should be explored. The process of how we present the budget to the other branches, and how we provide appropriate accountability, needs to be reviewed.

We must ensure that providing adequate funds for the administration of justice happens as a matter of course, in good years and in bad, and not after an annual struggle with uncertain odds.

Our goal is to make statewide systems work in a way that will enable courts to meet the needs of the local community. Our justice system is a statewide system — in terms of responsibility, effect, accountability and oversight. Individuals anywhere in California must be assured of equivalent treatment.

But a statewide approach to the judicial system in a jurisdiction as varied as ours can be successful only if it develops hand in hand with the attention to detail that is needed for the many local communities being served.

Having a statewide system that makes available a menu of services from which local courts can select and adapt can be of tremendous benefit. We must never lose sight of the fact that although the administration of justice involves a court system, it affects individual lives in profound ways every day.

This column was exerpted from Chief Justice George’s State of the Judiciary address to the State Bar Sept. 6.

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