Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Budget ‘Sweep’ Imperils Trial Courts, CJA President Warns Governor
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
California’s trial courts will not be able to function if the Brown administration implements a plan to return unexpended reserves to the general fund at the end of the current fiscal year, the president of the California Judges Association said yesterday.
Sonoma Superior Court Judge Alan Hardcastle, in a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown, urged the state’s chief executive “to stand behind the plain language and meaning of the June 2012 budget act trailer bill,” which Hardcastle said “specifically contemplated a full two years for trial courts to spend down their accumulated fund balances.”
A copy of the letter was obtained by the MetNews.
Brown and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye are scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss the proposal by the Department of Finance to “sweep” $200 million in remaining court reserves at the end of the 2012–2013 fiscal year. Administrative Director of the Courts Steven Jahr wrote to branch members last Wednesday to explain the proposal and enlist their opposition.
The budget trailer language that Hardcastle was referring to appears in Government Code Sec. 77203, and reads:
“(a) Prior to June 30, 2014, a trial court may carry over all unexpended funds from the courts operating budget from the prior fiscal year.
“(b) Commencing June 30, 2014, a trial court may carry over unexpended funds in an amount not to exceed 1% of the courts operating budget from the prior fiscal year.”
Jahr explained in his letter last week that he had met on Tuesday with state Director of Finance Ana Matosantos, who had insisted that the administration’s budget agreement with the Legislature “anticipated sweeping these funds, despite the Budget Act trailer bill language.”
Jahr estimated that this will mean “a further $261 million of reduced support, totaling a reduction of $475 million to the trial courts statewide, despite all previously successful efforts to find offsets and obtain revenue enhancements.”
The chief justice, Jahr said, will warn Brown of the “dire consequences” of the sweep.
In his letter yesterday, Hardcastle similarly told the governor:
“Since the enactment of the budget act in June, the judicial branch and the trial courts in all 58 counties have operated on a business plan projecting a 24 month spend-down of reserve balances. Trial courts have been operating in good faith under that assumption for the first half of this fiscal year and trying to minimize the devastating effects of the ongoing cuts to the branch. Despite those efforts, courthouses are closing, hours are cut and staff are furloughed and laid off. Under the budget suggested by the Department of Finance to the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts the Judicial Branch will no longer be able to fulfill our constitutional obligation to California and we are nearing a crisis that will effectively eliminate access to justice to many Californians.”
He went on to say:
“As we pointed out during negotiations of this year’s budget, one year did not give courts sufficient time to adequately prepare for the change without drastically affecting the ability of courts to carry out their core functions. Nothing has changed in the last 6 months and CJA remains unclear as to the sudden change proposed by your office. Elimination of fund balances as you now propose will cripple branch operations.
“As courts adjust to the 2012-13 cuts it is becoming abundantly clear the judicial branch will be unable to fulfill its constitutional role. Accelerating these unsustainable cuts means that many parts of California will soon be without an official forum of resolving disputes.”
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company