Fix state’s court-funding crisis

By Arnella Sims

Cutbacks and scarcity have a way of revealing institutional weaknesses, and our court system in California is a perfect example. After suffering $605 million in cuts in the last three years, including $350 million in last year’s budget, the response from the central court bureaucracy, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has revealed a culture of bureaucratic rigidity, insularity and an inability or unwillingness to protect the courts’ core function: serving justice and the public.

A.B. 1208 by Charles Calderon, D-Industry, a bill introduced last year and facing a live-or-die Jan. 31 deadline, is a response to this failure. Instead of waiting any longer for the AOC and its ineffectual, rubber-stamp governing body, the Judicial Council, to mend their ways, the bill simply and cleanly prioritizes the core mission of the courts: justice. It provides that all funding allocated by the Legislature for trial courts be directed to trial courts, not the AOC or any of its special funds or pet projects.

The path to this crisis of confidence in the governance of our courts has been a long and tortured one.

For the first time ever, in 2010 California’s courts closed. This has never happened in California’s history, not even in the darkest economic times of the Great Depression. At the same time, over the past decade, the AOC has spent nearly half a billion dollars on a case management system that has been in development for over a decade, is 800 percent over budget, is expected to have a final price tag of nearly $2 billion – and still doesn’t work. The IT contract has been modified a staggering 102 times.

But the case against continuing to give the AOC carte blanche over trial court funding goes beyond the epic bungling of one project. Trial courts around the state are projecting massive layoffs and courtroom closures, including 1,200 jobs lost over the next two years in Los Angeles – at the same time, the AOC’s budget has more than quadrupled since 1997-98.

The Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act was intended to rectify imbalances that made justice in rural counties significantly different from the rest of the state. But the main result of the Act wasn’t to redistribute funding among counties as was intended – it was to redistribute funding to the central bureaucracy itself.

We need to be more accountable, more efficient, and more fully dedicated to serving the public.

A.B. 1208 is just the starting point.

The AOC’s functions and services need to be thoroughly re-imagined. For example, do the 15 judges, four attorneys, and two legislators who comprise the Judicial Council really have the business, real estate, architectural and engineering experience to manage the construction of $5 billion worth of new courthouses? The available evidence seems to indicate that they do not. One of the new courthouses cost $1,910 per square foot – nearly eight times higher than other government buildings. One small town of 200 will get a $26 million dollar building with only one courtroom.

From the trivial (iPads for all top brass) to the hugely obscene (CCMS, construction costs, and maintenance mismanagement), waste in the AOC is rampant.

Despite oversight hearings, reports and recommendations, the Legislature won’t see a fundamental change until it regains its proper role and power of the purse. The Legislature alone should exercise its responsibility to allocate money to trial courts; delegating that responsibility to a state bureaucracy with weak governance has been a costly mistake.

Arnella Sims is a court reporter for the Los Angeles Superior Court.

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