Wednesday, February 24, 2010

State of the Judiciary Highlights

Yesterday, Chief Justice Ronald George gave his 15th annual State of the Judiciary Address to the California Legislature. Here are some highlights, courtesy of the Judicial Council’s press release.

Finances. The Chief noted that “‘[c]ourts are not a luxury to be funded in good times and ignored in bad times. Justice cannot be available only when it is convenient to pay for it.’”

Yet the courts are “‘increasingly hard-pressed to meet their obligation to provide accessible justice.’”  They weathered “‘this difficult year with a combination of spending reductions, redirections of one-time funding, and the use of reserves – which will not continue to be available.’”

The cost-cutting measures included ten one-day-a-month court closures.  This resulted in pay cuts for 20,000 court employees.  In addition, “‘the vast majority of judges and justices in California – between 80 and 90 percent – have pledged to participate in a voluntary salary waiver program amounting to a 4.6 percent pay reduction.'"

But the Chief lamented sacrificing access to the courts.  “‘The unintended yet inevitable symbolism of ‘Closed’ signs on our courthouses – institutions that embody our nation’s revered democratic ideals – is a graphic indication of the severity of California’s economic crisis . . . These statewide closures must not continue into the next fiscal year.’”

The Chief asked the Legislature “‘not for increases, but for sufficient and secure funding in the coming fiscal year, including an extension of temporary revenue enhancements that are due to sunset next year.’”  He cautioned “‘[t]he current budget now proposed for the courts includes triggers related to federal funding and new revenue from traffic violations — contingencies that are uncertain.'”

Structural Reforms. The Chief "'praised the Legislature and Governor for their support'” of structural reforms that have helped make the courts “‘better able to deliver on the promise of equal justice under law,’” including trial court unification.

The reforms also include the 2002 Trial Court Facilities Act transferring county court facilities to state control, which the Chief described as the “‘successful conclusion of one of the largest real estate transactions in our state’s history.’”  “‘Judicial branch oversight of court facilities provides significant benefits for the public:  increased safety and security, greater operational efficiencies, savings through statewide purchasing power, and enhanced delivery of programs and services,’” he stated.

Ongoing projects. The Chief reported the California Case Management System (CCMS) project is almost complete and, “‘[w]hen fully deployed, the new system will deliver the services, efficiencies, and access to information that the public has a right to expect.'”

He also praised Senate Bill 140, which would use $5 billion in lease revenue bonds to fund "'repairing and replacing the most dilapidated and dangerous court facilities.'"  He stated “‘This homegrown stimulus package . . . could not have come at a better time for the California construction industry and the men and women employed in the building trades . . . . Estimates are that as many as 105,000 jobs will be created by the projects authorized by this measure.’”

The Chief stressed that CCMS and court construction projects "'cannot be shelved when we encounter bad times – the welfare and safety of Californians depend upon proper investment in the long-term future of our state, and our plans will enhance California’s economy to benefit us all.'"  He warned the “‘shortsighted approach’” of shifting these funds to daily court operations “‘would have severe negative consequences for public safety and the well-being of the men and women who work in our courts.  It also would be financially costly to the state in the long run.’”