Chief justice hails new trial court funding legislation as the ‘jewel
in the crown’

by Nancy McCarthy
Staff Writer


[Chief Justice Ronald M. George]

George also pronounced himself pleased with the unanimous passage of legislation to speed up appointment of counsel for Death Row inmates.

Gov. Pete Wilson was expected to sign both measures before the Oct. 12 deadline.

The Lockyer-Eisenberg Trial Court Funding and Improvement Act of 1997 changes the mechanism by which the state’s courts are paid. Despite a commitment by the legislature in 1991 to increase state funding to 75 percent, the state currently contributes about 35 percent and the 58 counties pay the remaining 65 percent. The new measure will reverse those percentages.

Senate president pro tem Bill Lockyer, a longtime supporter of increased state funding for courts, said the measure "keeps a promise made by the legislature and governor several years ago."

Added Assemblyman Curt Pringle, who carried the bill with Assemblywoman Martha Escutia, "This legislature has been talking about a commitment (to increase funding) for years. This sets in place, I believe permanently, the change that is necessary."

The main ingredients

Key provisions of the funding legislation, AB 233, and related bills will:

The measure will provide $350 million in relief to counties next year.


In visits to all 58 California counties during the past year, George said a consistent theme emerged.

"At courthouse after courthouse, I heard stories of woefully inadequate facilities, insufficient staff, unavailable interpreter services and antiquated information processing systems incapable of meeting current court needs," he said.

Because counties are required to fund services such as libraries and health clinics, court funding has been erratic. For the last two years, the legislature has appropriated supplemental emergency funds to keep all courts operational.

George lobbied unceasingly for state funding and was jubilant when the measure finally was approved at 7:10 a.m. Sept. 13. "It has no negatives," he said, "except it would be nice if it were effective today."

The new law will take effect Jan. 1, 1998.

Capital appeals

The capital appeals reforms, also contained in a bill by Lockyer, are expected to both reduce delays in processing death penalty appeals and in finding counsel to represent inmates on Death Row.

The measure, SB 513, creates the California Habeas Resource Center of up to 30 lawyers to handle state and federal habeas corpus proceedings, adds 15 attorneys to the state public defenders office to handle direct appeals, and increases compensation for appointed private counsel from $98 to $125 per hour.

George said the current situation, in which 156 Death Row inmates do not have counsel and appeals advance at a snail’s pace, "is a blight on our system."

Attorney General Dan Lungren opposed the reform package, saying it would reinstitute earlier programs that failed.

The future

George said he will return to the legislature next year with a wish list designed to make the courts safer, more efficient and more user-friendly.

He said he will seek money for better technology, courtroom security, jury reform, including better pay for jurors, and self-help centers in family law courts.

The chief justice also plans to conduct a facilities study to determine physical plant needs.