Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Chief Laments Court Budget

More from Cheryl Miller:

"While in past gatherings George has focused on policy issues affecting the high court, such as the state's death penalty backlog, Friday's conference was dominated by talk about the judicial branch's dire fiscal circumstances.

"The state cut $400 million from the judiciary's budget this year, leading the Judicial Council to order courts statewide to close once a month. That branch can't absorb more cuts next year, George said.

"'I made a strong pitch when I met with the governor [in November] that we have to have more money than what we received in the current year's budget,' George told reporters.

"For starters, George said, branch leaders will ask the governor to restore the $100 million slashed from the judiciary this spring after state revenues plummeted. They'll also seek to extend a number of filing fee surcharges set to expire next year.

"But one measure the branch will not pursue, George said, is backing off plans for a $1 billion-plus case management system. The computer network, now scheduled for full deployment in 2013, has drawn howls of protest from some judges and court workers who argue that money set aside for the new technology would be better spent on keeping courthouses open.

"Lawmakers diverted some of the money for the project this year to trial court operations, but delaying the system's deployment will only drive up the final costs, George said. 'It is something that is vital,' he said. 'It's not a luxury.'

"George also blasted a proposal, championed by Los Angeles County Superior Court Presiding Judge Charles McCoy Jr., to temporarily allow trial courts to spend new fees-generated money on local operations instead of setting it aside for an eventual $5 billion courthouse construction program. When the Legislature approved the plan in 2008, George called its passage one of the top legislative victories of his tenure as chief justice.

"George said McCoy's proposal made no more sense than the state halting all highway maintenance projects during economic downturns or a farmer plowing under his seed corn. 'You can't just stop everything,' he said.

"George said that 50 of 58 trial court presiding judges have signaled support for continuing with the courthouse construction plan, which includes 41 projects statewide. But the prospect of a public rift with the state's largest trial court could pose problems for the branch as it tries to negotiate specifics in a new budget with the governor and Legislature next year.

"George brushed off criticisms of branch spending — and more specifically, spending by the Administrative Office of the Courts — as politics generated by difficult economic times.

'I don't accept arguments to dismantle the AOC and go back to those supposedly halcyon days' when counties, not a centralized judiciary, oversaw the courts, George said. 'I don't buy this idea that we go back to this feudal approach. We're a statewide branch.'