California judges‘ war heading into new phase
By Dan Walters
A professional-quality video clip that popped up on YouTube depicts physical deficiencies in California courtrooms and makes the case for building new courthouses and rehabbing old ones.
The video, containing scene after scene of overcrowded courtrooms, mousetraps and water damage, was produced for the Judicial Council, the San Francisco-based policymaking body for California's court system.
It's ammunition in the latest skirmish between the council, headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, and the rebellious Alliance of California Judges over how to deal with cutbacks in state court financing.
The ACJ has accused the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts of wasting money on a bloated bureaucracy, an unworkable centralized computer system and a multibillion-dollar courthouse construction program while local courts have been forced into periodic shutdowns and employee furloughs.
The Alliance won one skirmish recently when the Judicial Council canceled the computer program.
The rebels also won Assembly passage of a bill, bitterly opposed by Cantil-Sakauye and her allies, that would give local courts more authority over allocation of funds.
And now the battle is shifting to the construction program, which critics say is too grandiose and is gobbling up money that should be diverted into support for court operations.
In 2008, the Legislature, at the behest of Cantil-Sakauye's predecessor, Ron George, authorized up to $5 billion in bonds to finance courthouse construction, to be repaid through increases in fines, fees and assessments on court system users.
Some of that income stream has already been diverted into operations to offset reductions in judicial allocations from the state budget, and last week, as it placed the video on YouTube, the Judicial Council endorsed, conceptually, a reassessment of the construction program that would, it said, "yield significant long-term savings."
Thirteen projects are to be reassessed while another 24 are to proceed with some budget reductions, even if it means departing from the council's design standards.
But the ACJ isn't placated. While it endorsed the construction slenderizing, it also told the Judicial Council that it should suspend all courthouse contracting "until the budget picture becomes more clear," noting that the courts could face even more budget cuts due to lower-than-expected state revenue. The Alliance also is seeking an independent review of construction costs by the state auditor.
The Judicial Council's action, the Alliance's criticisms and the state's shaky finances set the stage for a showdown in the Capitol as Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators look for more ways to close an ever-growing, multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
Dan Walters is an editorial writer for Sacramento Bee.