April 2012 - No Courts, No Justice
by Dimetria A. Jackson
Court underfunding is a pervasive and critical issue, nationwide. Without a properly funded judiciary, the adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied” will be an inevitable reality for many seeking resolution of their legal matters. During the National Conference of Bar Presidents meeting, held in conjunction with the ABA’s 2012 Midyear Meeting in February, bar association presidents and staff discussed the effects of inadequate court funding on access to justice. Courts, throughout the country, are experiencing pay cuts, hiring freezes, increased filing fees and closures, at a time when the judicial system is inundated with additional filings spurred by economic hardship.
To highlight the importance of American courts and funding shortages that are threatening citizens’ access to justice, the ABA’s 2012 Law Day theme is, “No Courts, No Justice, No Freedom.” Those words and sentiments were expressed during the Stand Up for Justice Rally, held in Los Angeles, in January. The rally, sponsored by the Open Courts Coalition (OCC), which is comprised of members of the public and private sectors and former elected officials, was held in support of court funding.
California’s courts have experienced budget cuts in excess of $650 million since 2008. Governor Brown has stated that he does not seek any immediate cuts to the courts for the 2012-2013 budget year. However, if the Governor’s plan for new revenue in the form of a tax increase is not approved in the November 2012 election, an automatic budget cut of $125 million will be triggered.
While members of the legal profession are in agreement that the courts have to be adequately funded in order to effectively administer justice to individuals and businesses, there appears to be dissension as to a resolution. In 2011, Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon introduced AB 1208, also known as the Trial Court Rights Act of 2011, at the behest of the Alliance of California Judges, an organization of judges formed in 2009 in response to the unprecedented financial crisis facing the judicial branch.
If AB 1208, which was passed by the Assembly in January, becomes law, it will change the way that funds are distributed to California trial courts. Currently, in accordance with the California Constitution, the Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the courts, distributes funding to the courts. AB 1208 would effectively remove the Judicial Council of its control over the courts’ $3 billion budget and place control of the budget with the Legislature. The bill would decentralize power within the Administrative Office of the Courts, the administrative arm of the Judicial Council, giving local courts “the independent right and duty to manage its administrative and financial affairs in accordance with its own policies.” AB 1208 has been described as a lightning rod. This controversial legislation has spawned division among members of the Legislature, judges, and attorneys. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and the Judicial Council oppose the bill. According to Justice Cantil-Sakauye, “…this is no victory for Californians, for our state courts, or for equal access to justice.”
On the other hand, AB 1208 has garnered the support of the Los Angeles Superior Court and the Services Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents thousands of California court employees. According to SEIU member Debbi Pearson, “court workers applaud the State Assembly’s passage of AB 1208, a bill needed to rein in wasteful spending within the Administrative Office of the Courts by moving spending decisions out of the hands of an unaccountable bureaucracy and closer to the local trial courts that are the heart of California’s justice system.” The next step for AB 1208 is the Senate, where the bill will undoubtedly encounter obstacles. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has indicated that he has no immediate plans to send AB 1208 to a committee hearing. Regardless of the bill’s future, California court funding is in a perilous state.
Open Courts Coalition Updates
The OCC, in an effort to keep the issue of court funding in the media, has planned its next Stand Up for Justice Rally for April 18th in San Francisco. Attorney General Kamala Harris is scheduled to speak. The OCC sent a resolution to bar associations throughout the state that addresses the court budget shortfall by recommending: $100 million from the trial court reserve funds; $50 million from new revenues generated by filing fees; $100 million for court funding to prevent future judicial budget shortfalls; a 3-year restoration of the $150 million cut from the courts at the end of fiscal year 2011-2012; and implementation of court efficiencies that would alleviate the workload of the courts under current funding levels. The OCC hopes that bar associations will adopt the resolution, which will be used to garner support prior to the Governor’s issuance of the May revise budget.
Orange County Superior Court
Under the stewardship of Presiding Judge Thomas Borris, Orange County has implemented several cost-saving and efficiency measures. Since 2009, over $20 million every year in permanently reduced operating expenses can be documented by Orange County courts. Orange County has not taken a position on AB 1208. Presiding Judge Borris, like many judges and attorneys, hopes that the responsible financial efforts of Orange County and other county superior courts will be considered before further reductions in judiciary funding are contemplated.
One cost saving initiative, for both the courts and your clients, is electronic filing. If you would like to learn more about e-filing, the OCBA and the Orange County Women Lawyers Association (OCWLA) will be co-sponsoring trainings in conjunction with the Superior Court. Please check the OCBA calendar for dates and times.
Dimetria A. Jackson is 2012 President of the Orange County Bar Association, a freelance attorney with Montage Legal Group, handling corporate transactional matters, and the Chief Executive Officer of redBAMBINA.com. She may be reached at email@example.com.