Better justice through local funding control
By JOSH NEWMAN and JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN
It’s no secret that California’s clogged courts are seriously underfunded. Gov. Brown recently augmented his proposed budget for next year with $75 million in discretionary funding for the state’s trial courts, and an additional $47.8 million for trial court operations. In theory, that’s a good start. But only if applied in ways that directly address some of the most pressing issues currently facing our courts.
Last month a contingent of O.C. Superior Court workers traveled to Sacramento. They met with legislators, policy advocates, and state finance officials from both parties and explained how, as a “donor” court under the current, convoluted funding method, our local courts are not receiving their fair share of statewide funding. They further detailed the numerous negative impacts donor court status has had on our county’s ability to administer justice fairly and efficiently.
For example, five years ago court reporters had their work hours slashed from 40 to 35 hours per week, reducing them from full-time to part-time employees. This made Orange County the only Superior Court in all of California to rely solely on part-time court reporters. Within a short time, many highly trained, dedicated court reporters fled O.C. for positions in courts in neighboring counties, in pursuit of more hours and better wages and benefits. This flight of talent continues, to the point that the O.C. Superior Court today employs only 80 court reporters compared to 120 five years ago, a staggering 33 percent reduction. Because court proceedings depend on the presence of a court reporter, the net result has been a “domino effect” negatively impacting all court operations and severely reducing access to justice for O.C. residents.
O.C. Superior Court workers, 75 percent of whom are women, have been and remain dedicated to serving the public. Yet for the past several years, during which the Court’s volume has increased even as its budgets have shrunk, they have found their efforts increasingly frustrated by unfair and inequitable funding limitations. This is where the question as to how the governor’s proposed funding increase gets allocated becomes so important.
Although the additional funding proposed by the governor could help alleviate our local courts’ funding shortfall, the professionals who are most experienced with the operation of the courts are concerned that it will not. That’s because the proposed budget vests discretion for adopting priorities for distributing some of those funds with the Judicial Council.
The Judicial Council, located in San Francisco, is the body charged with oversight of the state court system, and has a long and well-deserved reputation for spending taxpayer funds on priorities that are inconsistent with the needs of the public. We believe it’s in the best interests of local residents and court workers that important decisions regarding the allocation and spending of the $122.8 million in additional funds for court operations be made not by a bureaucratic entity more than 400 miles away, but by the local courts themselves.
Members of the Legislature from both parties can and should resolve to more effectively spend the proposed budget increase in ways that best serve the courts. They should ensure that local courts are given control over these additional court funds in order to begin the process of restoring curtailed services, rehiring needed staff, paying competitive wages, and possibly even re-opening desperately needed courtrooms. From there, local courts like O.C. Superior Court must do their part to work collaboratively with their employees to ensure that funding priorities positively improve the operation of the courts while better harnessing and rewarding the talent and commitment of the civil servants on which an effective justice system ultimately depends.
Sen. Josh Newman represents the 29th district in the California state Senate. Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.
Publication Date: February 8, 2018