monopoly_money.jpgCalifornia Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has named a committee of 10 judges and court staff members to lead negotiations with the Legislature on the details of a planned $544 million in new budget cuts to the court system.

Cantil-Sakauye announced the committee members in San Francisco on Friday, following a special meeting of the state Judicial Council in Sacramento Thursday to discuss the reductions.

The new court cuts were disclosed by Gov. Jerry Brown last Monday as part of the governor’s annual May revision of the state budget proposed in January for the 2012-13 fiscal year. The revision adds a total of $4.1 billion in cuts to the state budget for the coming year.

The year begins on July 1 and the state constitutional deadline for the Legislature to send a budget to the governor is June 15.

The chief justice told the Judicial Council on Thursday that the small committee would be intended to have “the flexibility and the ability to move quickly and nimbly in the Capitol at all hours and any part of the week.”

She said she expected the Legislature’s budget process to move rapidly in the 10 days leading up to the June 15 deadline.

“I remember last year things moved very quickly…I realized how important it was for us to have a presence there,” Cantil-Sakauye told the council, which is the policy-making body for the state court system.

The committee is intended to represent all components of the judicial branch and “assist in fact-gathering and outreach,” she said.

Cantil-Sakauye said she was disheartened by the cuts, but said, “However, our state is in crisis.”

Committee members include Cantil-Sakauye, who chairs the council; Associate California Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter; and Court of Appeal Justice William McGuiness of San Francisco.

Others are four current and retired Superior Court judges from Southern and Eastern California, one Superior Court executive and two top staff members of the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

The Brown administration’s total proposed budget for the court system in the coming fiscal year is $3.6 billion, including about $2.9 million for the 58 county-based Superior Court trial courts.

Brown announced the general outline of the planned cuts, which include a delay of $240 million of courthouse construction, the use of $300 million in reserve funds of the Superior Courts, and $4 million more in pension contributions by court staff.

But details on use of the reserve funds remain to be worked out and are expected to be provided in the yet-to-be developed June budget law.

In the past, varying amounts of the funds have been set aside by individual Superior Courts for possible emergencies and to cover upcoming contract expenses and other costs.

Court representatives have expressed concerns that some of the funds are already earmarked for legislatively required uses or restricted for other reasons.

In addition, they say, the administration’s estimate is based on a list of reserve funds in place as of July 1, 2011, but the numbers may have changed since then.

During a presentation to the council on Thursday, Brown’s finance department director, Ana Matosantos, said the reserves to be drawn upon include both the $300 million announced by Brown and another $102 million previously identified by the council in January as being possibly available.

The $402 million is part of total of $562 million in reserves held by the Superior Courts as of July 1, 2011.

Matosantos said the Brown administration determined by a “conservative estimate” that $402 million would be legally available and would not be restricted.

In answer to questions from judges at the meeting, Matosantos said the administration expected the trial courts to draw on their reserves regardless of their previous strategies or challenges in developing those reserves.

“We look at the local reserves as an available benefit to the statewide allocation (of trial court funding). The benefit to the entire judiciary is consistent with the principle of equal access to justice,” she said.

Matosantos said the administration expects the budget law will provide that the Judicial Council will allocate funding for each Superior Court, but will contain specific instructions that “each individual court’s allocation would be offset by that individual court’s reserve.”

She said the administration had not done a study of how much reserve money is currently available for each court, but would be open to “set up a process on this issue, exactly how we arrive at the number.”

In place of individual court reserve funds, Matosantos said, the administration is proposing that $80 million of trial court funding would be held back to provide a statewide reserve fund that the Judicial Council could distribute to courts in emergencies.

In an example of reserve funds, San Francisco Superior Court had $4.95 million in reserves as of July 1, according to a list submitted to the Legislature by the Judicial Council in January.

Court spokeswoman Ann Donlan said Friday that the court has now increased its reserve to $7.3 million.

In recent years, the court had a relatively smaller reserve than some courts partly because it dipped into its reserve to avoid staff layoffs. Last fall, the court was able to avert part of some drastic staff cuts and court closures after receiving an emergency $2.5 million loan from the Judicial Council.

Santa Clara County Superior Court had $24.7 million in reserve funds as of July 1.

Court Chief Executive Officer David Yamasaki said the current amount is “significantly lower,” but said the exact amount is difficult to specify because it changes constantly.

He said the court had planned to use some of the reserves to pay for state-required expenses such as children’s waiting rooms as well as for upcoming leases and contracts and the cost of technology that would help to make up for a 17 percent court staff reduction achieved through attrition.

Now, the court may have to give up the technology improvements intended to aid court users, he said.

Determining available reserve funds will be a complicated process, Yamasaki said.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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