Wednesday, March 26, 2003
Budget Crisis Threatens Quality of Justice, George Warns Lawmakers
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The state budget crisis threatens to undo much of the effort the state courts have made to improve the quality of California justice for poor and affluent litigants alike, Chief Justice Ronald M. George warned a joint session of the Legislature yesterday in Sacramento.
“Access to justice is being threatened and diminished in ways that directly affect individuals who need and deserve court services†? especially in the areas of civil and family law,” George said in prepared remarks to be delivered last evening.
The chief justice, who addresses lawmakers each spring on “The State of the Judiciary,” cited programs like the Equal Access Fund, which helps pay for legal services for the poor and court programs to help self-represented litigants.
“The challenge we share with you is not to squander the advances already made by all three branches of government in promoting the courts’ ability to meet the public’s needs,” George said. “Courts rely on the trust and confidence of those they serve in order to function effectively†? and we risk undermining the public’s faith in our justice system if we cannot provide the services that make our system truly accessible to all.”
He noted that the courts significantly scaled back their budget requests the last two years in response to decreasing state revenues. As a result, he said, the courts have already cut back on services.
He cited the closure of Family Law Information Centers, which advise women of their rights with respect to support, child custody, divorce, and protection from domestic violence; the curtailment of mediation services; reductions in clerks’ office and courtroom hours; elimination of funding for complex litigation programs; elimination of night court operations; and layoffs or furloughs of court employees.
The problems are not limited to the trial courts, he added. Cutbacks in the funding of the Habeas Corpus Resource Center and the Capital Assistance Project threaten to eliminate the progress that has been made in attracting competent counsel for, and reducing delays in the processing of, capital cases.
George endorsed several proposals by the governor for revenue increases or cost savings, including increasing some court fees, implementing a new fee to pay for court security; implementing electronic court reporting; allowing other law enforcement agencies to bid against the sheriffs for the right to provide security; and allowing the courts to keep certain fees which they currently generate but have to turn over to the counties.
The chief justice acknowledged the political difficulties with passing some of the proposals. But he expressed hope that compromises could be reached.
A task force, he noted, is working with the court reporters on language to assure that the use of electronic reporting would be limited in a way that would assure that no current court reporting job would be eliminated. And he said he has personally started talks with the sheriffs on the question of savings in security costs, which make up nearly 18 percent of trial court budgets.
George also endorsed measures to increase the collection of fines and other court-ordered assessments. He noted that the Conference of Chief Justices, of which he is the president-elect, has urged Congress to create a program for Internal Revenue Service interception of income tax refunds due taxpayers who have not paid their fines—similar to the program for unpaid child support.
He also cited a bill by Senate Judiciary Chair Martha Escutia to create a statewide system to enhance collection of delinquent court-ordered fines.
George also gave a nod to the major news of the day, telling lawmakers:
“This is a critical period in our nation’s history. Perhaps as never before, the international crisis has focused attention on our ability to preserve our freedoms. As our troops are engaged in battle, all of us†? including the courts†? must ensure that the principles in whose name the men and women in our military are risking their lives remain strong and vibrant.
At the same time, the economic crisis facing our state, and the rest of our nation, challenges us to make certain that our judicial system remains able to perform its crucial role in protecting and preserving those freedoms.”
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company