Court Money Woes Invite CA Intervention

The corrosive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on California’s public education system are evident.

The state’s nearly six million K-12 students have been forced to attend classes remotely for months and even when schools have reopened they have been plagued with political disputes over the whether students should be forced to wear masks and/or be vaccinated.

These arguments persist, but there is no doubt that two years of turbulent education have eroded learning and widened the already yawning “achievement gap” between poor students and those learning English. of their most privileged peers.

Public schools, however, are not the only major institution affected by the pandemic and one of the most damaged has been California’s largest court system, made up of 1,800 judges, which has also suffered closures and operations to improvised distances.

Courts were already suffering when the pandemic hit, inundated with millions of civil and criminal cases that strained physical and human resources to breaking point, erratically managed by a central bureaucracy overseen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and battered by a fierce internal dispute over money and priorities.

The courts’ problems have not gone unnoticed by Capitol politicians, but in theory they are an independent branch of government, so the governor and legislature cannot easily intervene. That said, this year’s version of the state’s annual budget process could see a shift in the Capitol’s traditional approach to the courts.

Court officials are seeking several million dollars to pursue a year-long program to replace courthouses as fees and fines that were to pay off construction bonds have fallen sharply and Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget agrees. However, there are indications that the legislature may insist that the Judicial Council and the Courts Administration Office cede control of the program.

Last month, Legislative Budget analyst Gabe Petek published a very critical reportadvising lawmakers that if the state is to save the insolvent construction program and increase operating funds, it should have more say in how the money is spent, rather than allowing the judicial bureaucracy to spend as she wishes.

“Our concern is that there is a long-term solvency issue in this building fund that should not be resolved,” a senior Petek aide, Anita Lee, told lawmakers at a recent hearing. “Insolvency will likely require significant General Fund resources on an ongoing basis; at least $200 million per year for a decade to pay debt service for already completed courthouses.”

Such intervention is not unprecedented as forensic administrators have gotten themselves into financial hot water in recent years, including spending half a billion dollars on what was supposed to be a high-tech case management system. statewide that never worked. The Legislature eventually stepped in to cancel the project before even more money fell down the drain.

Centralizing what had been county-level courts into a single, statewide, state-funded system was the brainchild of former Chief Justice Ron George, who also championed the massive courthouse construction program and case management system.

The legislature approved the conversion two decades ago, but it has been troublesome from the start. Local judges complained that the San Francisco-based Courts Administration Office was playing favorites by doling out cash as well as botching the case management system and relying on unrealistic revenue assumptions to fund the building program.

A group of critical judges even formed their own splinter group, the California Judges Alliance, to counter the California Judges Association and the rest of the judicial establishment, including the Judicial Council, a policy-making group directed by the Chief Justice. Recent legislative measures aimed at exerting more influence seem to correspond to the complaints of the Alliance.