California's already budget-battered court system appears to be taking another hit in Gov. Jerry Brown's budget plan, which proposes draining another $200 million from the judiciary's coffers by delaying courthouse construction projects.
The state's court system, from its 58 trial courts to the California Supreme Court, would secure about $3.1 billion in the 2013-14 budget, dampening the hopes of judicial leaders who wanted to restore some of the roughly $1.2 billion in funding slashed from the judicial branch during the past few years. The good news for the judicial branch appears to be that the net result of moving money around is that the trial courts will have a bit more money to work with in 2013-14.
But Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, while relieved the court branch isn't being cut further, said she will now press her case with the governor and Legislature to restore some of the hundreds of millions of dollars lost in recent years, citing court closures, cuts in services and other strains on the California justice system.
"This is January, not June," she said Thursday. "We'd like to keep the dialogue open. This budget doesn't answer our problems and our challenges."
Under the governor's budget plan, the $200 million transfer of money out of trial court reserves would go toward court operations and delay unspecified courthouse construction projects for up to a year. The court system already has put numerous courthouse projects on hold during the past year to divert money to court operations, even though bond money had been raised to fund the projects.
Stephen Jahr, a retired judge now heading the California court bureaucracy, said the court construction fund is "already ravaged," expressing concern that the additional $200 million cut now will further strain replacing dilapidated courthouses.
Thus far, Santa Clara County's new family courthouse has been spared from construction delays and cuts, and local judges have indicated they hope the project is far enough along to avoid getting snagged in the state's budget woes.
Trial courts throughout the state already have experienced layoffs and reduced hours in clerk's offices.
Last year, the governor forced the judiciary to divert $400 million from trial court reserves to help cover a $544 million budget cut. In his budget outline, the Brown warned that by 2014-15, there will be no more reserves to tap and trial courts must make "permanent changes" to stay within projected budget levels.
The governor's budget plan includes one feature that may draw criticism from parts of the judiciary that contend the statewide court bureaucracy already gets too much money. The governor would slightly increase the budget for the Judicial Council, which includes the much-maligned Administrative Office of the Courts.
State Bar President Patrick Kelly expressed concern about the court budget, saying legal leaders will work "with the governor and the Legislature to mitigate the harm caused by these serious cuts to our state court system."
Meanwhile, the governor's budget for the most part preserves the status quo for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which was slated to receive about $9 billion in the 2013-14 budget year. However, the budget also provides about $2 billion more for prison construction and other improvements, prompting criticism from Californians United for a Responsible Budget.
The group called the governor's plan to beef up prison costs "backsliding," saying he is preparing to add more inmates to the prison system at a time when the state is under federal court orders to reduce the prison population.
The budget summary indicates the state will continue to send billions of dollars to help counties with the cost of the governor's "realignment" plan, which has shifted many low-level state inmates to county jails to relieve prison overcrowding under a federal court order. The prison budget indicates the realignment plan and a new voter-approved law limiting the three-strikes population will save several million dollars in the 2013-14 budget.
The governor earlier this week urged the federal court to remove California's prisons from the ongoing requirements of that court order, which forces the state to continue to shed thousands of inmates and improve the prisons' medical and mental health care.
The budget plan also highlighted how much California's youth prison system continues to shrink, with a population at a record low of fewer than 1,000 juvenile offenders being housed in state facilities. The budget does not identify the cost savings, but suggests the shifting of juvenile parolees to the oversight of county probation departments is part of the reduction in overall juvenile justice expenses for the state.
Staff writer Karen de Sa contributed to this story. Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz