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January 22, 2014
Editorial: California's chief justice makes the case for more courts funding

Cantil-Sakauye.JPG(Jan. 22 - By the Editorial Board)

Justice doesn't come cheap, and California's top court official has put out a price tag for the Legislature and public to ponder - $1.2 billion.

That's how much more the judicial branch needs annually by 2016-17 to recover from four years of steep budget cuts and restore a fully functioning court system, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye told The Sacramento Bee's editorial board Wednesday.

More immediately, she is lobbying legislators to boost funding for trial courts in the 2014-15 budget. Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing $105 million more for the courts. But Cantil-Sakauye asserts - and the Legislative Analyst's Office agrees - that because the courts can't dip into reserves as they did the last two years, that would be a net reduction.

It will take another $161.5 million just to "tread water" and keep the current level of services, plus cover an increase in employee health and retirement costs, the chief justice says. Without that additional bump, trial courts would have to close more courtrooms and furlough more employees. Already during the budget crunch, more than 200 courtrooms have been closed, other courts have imposed shorter hours and hundreds of employees have been laid off or not replaced. Since criminal cases understandably go to the front of the line, civil justice has been hit hardest.

While legislators have many competing needs and demands to weigh, they should spend some of the budget surplus on the courts. What they shouldn't do is increase court fees and fines, which were jacked up during the recession.

Cantil-Sakauye is right to say that we don't want "pay to play" - one justice system for the well-to-do and another for everyone else. All Californians should get their day in court in a timely fashion.

Cantil-Sakauye told the editorial board she's having more success getting her message across to legislators. When she became chief justice three years ago, she inherited a court system in financial crisis and faced an alliance of some 500 judges loudly critical of the court system's leaders.

The Judicial Council must accept some responsibility. Before pulling the plug in 2012, it wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a badly botched statewide computer system designed to bring the courts into the 21st century. Administrative offices got fat. There's more work to do to make the courts more efficient.

At the same time, Cantil-Sakauye and the rest of the Judicial Council are embarking on a major change in how money is divvied up among trial courts across the 58 counties.

The new funding formula appears to be fairer. It is based on workload - the time and staff it takes for 20 different kinds of cases and how many of each type is filed in each county.

The current formula is pegged to what each county court system was getting in 1998, when the state took over funding. That locked in an uneven playing field that hurt counties such as San Joaquin. Correctly, the change is being phased in so that counties that would lose under the new formula, including Sacramento, can adapt.

To do justice, however, the overall pie needs to grow. While the state may not be able to afford the courts' entire three-year blueprint, which calls for more than $612 million in 2014-15, it can't afford to do nothing.