California's judicial civil war -- judge against judge over money and power -- has been rekindled by Gov. Jerry Brown's revised state budget.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye convened a special meeting of the state Judicial Council in Sacramento today to discuss Brown's proposed cuts in state support for the courts. Right off the bat, a member of the rebel Alliance of California Judges berated the body for cutting money for trial courts while maintaining a bloated judicial bureaucracy in San Francisco and wasting money on a now-abandoned statewide computer system.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steve White delivered the broadside, pointing out that he and his colleagues had warned of continued cuts in state funding and complained that the judicial leadership -- Cantil-Sakauye and her predecessor, Ron George -- had ignored them.
"We were right," White told members of the council. "The time has come to stop and change that."
Cantil-Sakauye didn't respond to White but cut him off after his allotted time had expired.
Brown's revised 2012-13 budget includes another $544 million reduction in state financing for the $3.7 billion court system but proposes to offset it by tapping into local court reserves ($300 million), shifting money from a court construction program ($240 million) and making court employees pay more for the pensions ($4 million).
Ana Matosantos, Brown's budget director, told the council that despite steady drops in court financing from the state general fund, overall spending has remained stable at about $3.7 billion due to increases in revenue from fines and fees and shifts from construction funds.
The new proposal to tap into an estimated $402 million in local court reserves, however, clearly irritated some judges because it would erode local courts' financial flexibility and further centralize fiscal decision-making either in the Administrative Office of the Courts or in Matosantos' Department of Finance, which would gain control over distribution of some reserves.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a new point of friction emerged in the form of a letter that the Judicial Council members and staff wanted all 58 local presiding judges to sign, expressing alarm about continued cuts in judicial financing and the loss of authority over local court reserves.
Several judges refused to sign, even though the letter underwent several revisions in the past few days, reflecting the Alliance's position that the authority of the central judiciary administration over financial matters should be reduced, not enhanced as Brown's budget proposes.