The Trial Court Funding Workgroup met for the second time on Tuesday, and it quickly became apparent that observers who are looking to the 10 panelists for sweeping recommendations to change California’s court financing system are probably watching the wrong show.
At its inaugural meeting on Nov. 6, the group talked about choosing two or three courts of similar size to compare their budgets, caseloads and staffing levels. At Tuesday’s meeting the proposal never surfaced for discussion. Last month state Finance Director Ana Matosantos said she would suggest a more specific scope for the group’s vaguely defined work assignment. As of Tuesday, the Finance Department, no doubt consumed now with drafting the state budget, had not provided any more specificity.
Asked about the group’s endgame, co-chair Phillip Isenberg on Tuesday said only, “Have you read the charge sheet?”
That “charge,” as defined by the governor’s revised May budget, is to evaluate the state’s compliance with the 1997 Trial Court Funding Act, which, among other things, shifted court funding responsibility from the counties to the state. The group, the budget said, “will conduct a statewide analysis of workload metrics, staffing standards, and other relevant data necessary to support a more uniform and efficient administrative system for the judiciary.”
On Tuesday, that translated into giving Jody Patel, chief of staff of the Administrative Office of the Courts, a huge work assignment, including summarizing areas where there has been uniformity among court services and looking for ways to measure the funding act’s promise of equal access to justice in the trial courts.
How that will translate into any final recommendations is unclear. What is clear is that there seems to be little appetite among group members to dictate a standardized workload for an individual court or judge. And that may disappoint some historically underfunded courts.
“Disparate impacts upon access to justice from county to county will continue until workload is considered when making funding decisions,” leaders from Lake County Superior Court wrote in a Dec. 7 letter to the working group. The court’s presiding judge, assistant presiding judge and executive officer said they have had to reduce staffing by 35 percent, furlough workers and slash public hours while “some trial courts have been able to maintain services to the public and provide wage and benefit increases to staff.”
“Without funding based at least in large part on workload, there cannot be equal justice for all Californians,” the Lake County court leaders wrote.
The working group meets again on Jan. 15. Members are expected to produce a report on their findings by April.