Court money problems invite state intervention – Marin Independent Journal

The corrosive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on California’s public education system are evident.

The state’s nearly 6 million K-12 students were forced into jury-rigged remote lessons for months and even when schools reopened, they were plagued with political disputes over whether students should be required to wear masks and/or be vaccinated.

These arguments persist, but there is no doubt that two years of turbulent education have eroded learning and widened the already yawning “achievement gap” that separates poor, English-learning students from their more privileged peers. .

Public schools, however, are not the only major institution affected by the pandemic and one of the most damaged has been California’s largest court system, made up of 1,800 judges, which has also suffered closures and operations to improvised distances.

Courts were already suffering when the pandemic hit, inundated with millions of civil and criminal cases that strained physical and human resources to breaking point, erratically managed by a central bureaucracy overseen by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and battered by a fierce internal dispute over money and priorities.

The courts’ problems have not gone unnoticed by Capitol politicians, but in theory they are an independent branch of government, so the governor and legislature cannot easily intervene. That said, this year’s version of the state’s annual budget process could see a shift in the Capitol’s traditional approach to the courts.

Court officials are seeking several million dollars to pursue a year-long program to replace courthouses as fees and fines that were to repay construction bonds have fallen sharply and Governor Gavin Newsom’s budget is dwindling. ‘OK. However, there are indications that the legislature may insist that the Judicial Council and the Courts Administration Office cede control of the program.

Last month, Legislature budget analyst Gabe Petek released a highly critical report, advising lawmakers that if the state wants to save the insolvent construction program and increase operational funds, it should have more a say in how the money is spent, rather than allowing the judicial bureaucracy to spend as it sees fit.

“Our concern is that there is a long-term solvency issue in this building fund that should not be resolved,” a senior Petek aide, Anita Lee, told lawmakers at a recent hearing. “Insolvency will likely require significant general fund resources on an ongoing basis; at least $200 million a year for a decade to pay debt service for already completed courthouses.

Such intervention is not unprecedented as forensic administrators have gotten themselves into financial hot water in recent years, including spending half a billion dollars on what was supposed to be a high-tech case management system. statewide that never worked. The Legislature eventually stepped in to cancel the project before even more money fell down the drain.

Centralizing what had been county-level courts into a single, statewide, state-funded system was the brainchild of former Chief Justice Ron George, who also championed the massive courthouse construction program and case management system.

The legislature approved the conversion two decades ago, but it has been troublesome from the start. Local judges complained that the San Francisco-based Courts Administration Office was playing favorites by doling out cash as well as botching the case management system and relying on unrealistic revenue assumptions to fund the building program.

A group of critical judges even formed their own splinter group, the California Judges Alliance, to counter the California Judges Association and the rest of the judicial establishment, including the Judicial Council, a policy-making group directed by the Chief Justice. Recent legislative measures aimed at exerting more influence seem to correspond to the complaints of the Alliance.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending most of those years working for California newspapers. His commentary comes via CalMatters.org, a public interest journalism firm committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters. Learn more at calmmatters.org/commentary.

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