The Legislature is once again considering how much money to allocate to the trial courts in the state budget. This is an important debate. On its outcome turns the answer to the question: “How much access to justice will we have in Contra Costa County?”
The Governor’s January 2014 budget proposed adding $100 million to the trial courts. This amount hardly begins to restore the more than $700 million in cuts the branch has suffered.
In fact, if the trial courts are given only $100 million, then the Contra Costa Superior Court will have to cut services again.
In simplest terms, here is the reason: Contra Costa’s share of the $100 million will be about $2.1 million. But we have been using about $4 million of our reserves (our savings account) this year to retain 43.6 employees. The Legislature has decreed that starting July 1, 2014, courts cannot maintain significant reserves. We will, accordingly, lose $4 million in future operating funds while gaining only $2.1 million. That means, effectively, that we are facing a net cut of $1.9 million, and that will result in a reduction in court services.
We have been working with the Contra Costa County Bar Association to make this problem known to our legislators. The Bar has been extremely helpful in this regard. At the hearings before the relevant Assembly and Senate budget subcommittees on April 9 and 10, 2014, the Bar played a big role in helping bring witnesses to tell the legislators about the problems we are facing. Contra Costa County was well represented on both days.
I tried to capture the problem, and the opportunities, in a brief statement to the lawmakers. Here is my formal testimony:
Thank you for trying to add $100 million to the trial courts last year. The $60 million that we got was helpful—in a small way—in retaining employees and restoring some services. [This refers to fact that the legislature’s budget last year proposed adding $100 million to the trial courts, but in negotiations with the governor, that was cut to $60 million.]
But things are still very bad.
We should have 46 courtrooms serving the public. Eight are closed.
We close most of our clerks’ windows at 1 p.m. People stand in line for hours waiting to file papers.
We stop answering most of our phones at 1 p.m.
Civil jurors serve almost twice as long as they should because our courts are jammed.
Worse, our budget for the next fiscal year includes nine furlough days.
The Governor’s budget would add only $100 million to the trial court budget. For Contra Costa, that’s about $2.1 million. But we have been using almost $4 million in reserves to keep our doors open. If the trial courts get only $100 million more and we lose our reserves, we are facing further cuts in service.
Maintaining a fund balance—for employee retention and working capital—is essential to the sound management of our court.
So, with $100 million more, we are going to be cutting services. However, if we get the money sought by the Chief Justice [who is seeking $612 million for the judicial branch; of which $356.4 million would be used to augment existing trial court operations] we will be able to:
- Keep both our clerk’s office windows open and restore full phone service until 4 p.m. We will cut the wait time to file papers from hours to minutes.
- Cancel the furloughs.
- Reopen at least one courtroom; perhaps two.
- Staff our branch courts in Richmond and Pittsburg so people can file locally for:
- Domestic violence
- Elder abuse
- Workplace violence and
- Civil harassment restraining orders.
- Serve approximately 18,000 people at our self-help center—and serve them for more than 10 minutes a visit as we must do now.
- Mediate child custody disputes within three to four weeks—instead of making people wait three to four months.
- Eliminate the backlog in our annual conservatorship reviews.
- Keep our homeless court, which is hanging by a thin grant-funded thread.
- Perhaps establish a veteran’s court and a truancy court.
- And do much, much more to help our constituents regain access to justice as it should be in this great state of ours.
We look forward to doing all that with your help. Please give us the money we need so that we do not have to continue to turn away people who desperately need access to the courts.
The budget debates will intensify between now and mid-June when a final budget is likely to be adopted. We will continue to play an active role in reminding legislators that justice must not be rationed.
We look forward to continuing to work with the Bar to get the resources we need to begin to provide full access to justice once again.
Every voice counts. Please let yours be heard too.
Filed Under: Spotlight