When the state assumed full financial responsibility for the court system a decade ago, it was billed as a way of relieving pressure on county finances.
However, much like the state’s shouldering the financial burden for schools, judicial centralization has created unintended consequences. In both cases, hitherto independent systems have found that shifting financial responsibility to Sacramento puts them in competition with other sectors of the state budget for increasingly limited dollars.
That’s why the California Teachers Association and other school interests created an Education Coalition that wages constant war in political and legal arenas to protect its share of the state budget. And that’s why judges now find themselves in the Capitol’s political maelstrom – and even squabbling among themselves – as the governor and legislators whack court funds to deal with a deepening budget crisis.
Suddenly, legislators are questioning why the court system, headed by Chief Justice Ron George, has sharply expanded its administrative staff and spent many millions of dollars on a statewide computer system that isn’t working. And those legislative inquiries are being egged on by a coalition of lower court judges who have been compelled to close their courtrooms periodically to save money.
Suddenly, George finds himself engaged in a raw political battle. “Much of the loudest, much of the shrillest criticism – and I’m being charitable here – are from people who aren’t fully informed,” George said in one interview. “A lot of this is an effort to dismantle the statewide administration of justice because with the statewide administration of justice comes accountability.”
It’s somewhat reminiscent of the infighting among education groups in the uncertain days following passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which led to the state’s assuming financial responsibility for schools. The infighting ended with formation of the Education Coalition and its sponsorship of a 1988 ballot measure that carves out a special budget niche for schools.
The squabbling among the judges and between the courts and other claimants on the state budget is not likely to end soon, simply because the budget crisis shows no signs of ending.
Charles McCoy, presiding judge of the Los Angeles Super Court system, added more fuel this month in an article for Los Angeles Lawyer magazine, suggesting that the crisis is becoming so acute that it’s time to short-circuit a new program that raises court fees and criminal fines to finance bonds for courthouse expansion, and redirect the money into operations.
Noting that the new fees and fines are collecting $53 million in Los Angeles County alone, McCoy says it “would go a long way toward guarding the survival of court operations in the county,” raising the specter that without more money “as many as 100 courtrooms and nine courthouses could be affected.”