monopoly_money.jpgAfter a contentious meeting, the California Judicial Council today unanimously approved a loan of $2.5 million in emergency funding for San Francisco Superior Court.

Together with a previously approved grant of $646,000 for the San Francisco court’s two complex litigation departments, the funding will enable the court to reduce drastic cuts announced in July and keep 11 more courtrooms open.

The funding was approved at a special meeting of the 21-member council, the governing body of the California court system, at the State Building in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Superior Court will now close 14 rather than 25 civil courtrooms, out of a total of 63 civil and criminal courtrooms, and lay off 75 rather than 177 of its 485 employees.

The approval came at the end of a session in which Michael Yuen, the San Francisco court’s executive officer, accused the council and its staff agency, the Administrative Office of the Courts, of a “charade” and “shameful conduct.”

Yuen accused the agency of negotiating in bad faith because a committee report to the council added seven possible conditions to an agreement that Yuen and AOC Deputy Director Ron Overholt signed on Aug. 31.

The optional conditions for the council to consider included requirements for the court to submit plans and reports on its use of the funds and an AOC audit of the court.

Yuen said those possible requirements were an “unwelcome, insulting infringement on the local authority of the San Francisco Superior Court.”

“I will not allow my court to succumb to unnecessary micromanagement of our financial affairs,” Yuen said.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who chairs the council, said, “Let’s be clear.”

She said the agreement was “not a negotiation” but rather a proposed solution and that it was always understood that the Judicial Council would have to approve it.

The budget crunch for San Francisco Superior Court and other courts stems from a $350 million cut in statewide court funding made by the Legislature for the current fiscal year.

The $2.5 million emergency funding for San Francisco comes from a special $9.9 million court improvement fund that can be allocated by the council for urgent needs of any of the state’s 58 county-based superior courts.

Cantil-Sakauye said, “This improvement money belongs to all 58 courts. Because of the state economy, because of the cuts and lack of restoration, everyone is struggling,” she said.

Council member Douglas Miller, a Court of Appeal justice from Riverside, said the seven possible conditions were “discussion points” that were within the authority of the council to consider.

He said, “I don’t appreciate the lecture we just received,” but said, “We’re only here to help.”

Miller proposed a compromise that would include some but not all of the suggested conditions, including requirements for reports to the council in six and 12 months and a provision that the funding is a loan that must be repaid, without interest, within five years.

After getting approval by email from San Francisco Superior Court Presiding Judge Katherine Feinstein, who was at home ill, Yuen said the court would agree to the conditions.

The plan was approved by a unanimous voice vote of the council, which is made up of 15 judges, four lawyers and two legislators.

In discussion before the vote, several council members said they were concerned that the panel hadn’t established detailed criteria for allocating the emergency funds and that other trial courts had already made sacrifices in the form of deep cuts.

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Mary Ann O’Malley, a former presiding judge of that court, said, “I along with other presiding judges made some very tough decisions in the past three and one-half years. My court is down 25 percent.”

Council member Edith Matthei, a Los Angeles lawyer, said, “I have been troubled by the entire process because of the fact that each of the courts of our state is facing terrible problems over the next three years.”

Funding decisions should not be made on the basis of “which of the courts is making the loudest noise and which of the courts is threatening to close the most doors,” Matthei said.

The San Francisco court is undergoing severe cuts this year partly because it previously dipped into reserve funds to avoid layoffs and is no longer able to do so.

In addition, an audit of the court by the Judicial Council last year also noted some financial management problems, which Yuen said the court is now correcting.

The funding agreement requires the court to continue to implement best practices for collecting fees and fines.

After the meeting, Cantil-Sakauye issued a statement saying, “The spirited discussion at today’s meeting reflects the Judicial Council’s unwavering commitment – not to just one group of citizens – but to the entire state of California.”

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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