monopoly_money.jpgThe governing body of California’s judicial branch allocated a painful $350 million budget cut among different segments of the state court system at a meeting in San Francisco today.

The funding cut, amounting to 15 percent of the court system’s $2.3 billion operating budget, was made by the Legislature in the austerity budget enacted last month.

The state Judicial Council carried out the reduction by adopting the recommendations of a working group of judges and court executives.

California’s trial courts — the 58 county-based superior courts — will see a 6.8 percent loss of funds.

The California Supreme Court and six regional appeals courts will lose 9.7 percent of last year’s funds and the central administration, known as the Administrative Office of the Courts, will forgo 12 percent.

“There is no way to spread this without substantial pain,” working group member Stephen Nash, chief executive officer of San Bernardino County Superior Court, told the council.

Nash said the cumulative funding cut to the court system, including previous reductions since 2008, is now $653 million.

The full annual budget of the court system last year was $3.5 billion, but the adjusted operating budget considered by the working group excluded about $1.2 billion in non-reducible fixed costs.

Those costs include court security provided by sheriffs, which is now being transferred to county budgets, and judges’ salaries.

The plan includes a delay in most new courthouse construction around the state and a one-year suspension of a controversial computerized case management system being developed by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Some speakers at the meeting urged even greater cuts in the central administration and in construction planning in order to give more money to trial courts.

San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein told the council, “These runaway plans, systems and staff are sucking tens of millions of dollars from the trial courts and that must be reversed.”

The San Francisco court will lose nearly $5 million, in addition to a previous deficit of $8 million, from last year’s $75 million budget.

Feinstein announced Monday that the court is laying off 200 of its 4A80 employees and closing 12 of 15 civil trial courtrooms. Criminal trials will continue, but most civil lawsuits may take five years to go to trial, she said.

The San Francisco court is receiving a larger jolt this than some other superior courts because it previously dipped into reserve funds to avoid layoffs and is no longer able to do so.

“San Francisco may have been the first trial court to fall, but I know that others are soon to follow, and you know that too,” Feinstein told the council.

Court reporter Arnella Sims, who has worked for Los Angeles Superior Court for 36 years, said, “I’m watching the judicial system disintegrate before my very eyes.”

The council is made up of 15 judges, four lawyers and two legislators. It is chaired by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and has its headquarters in San Francisco.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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