SACRAMENTO Governor Jerry Brown has declared 2013 the year of fiscal sobriety in California. In the eyes of state court leaders, though, it's looking more like 12 months of a painful financial hangover.
The 2013-14 budget Brown delivered Thursday was free of the nine-figure cuts and fund borrowing that have tormented the judiciary over the past four years. But to the chagrin of lawyers and judges, it offered no new money either. And it suggested that the austere conditions that now characterize many courthouses around the state are here to stay, at least for the short-term.
"Beginning in 2014-15, reserves and fund balances will mostly be exhausted, which will require trial courts to make permanent changes to achieve roughly $200 million in savings needed to achieve structural balance," the proposal said.
Translation: This is the new normal.
"Most people want to spend more money than the state has and I will tell you that 2013 is the year of fiscal discipline and living within our means. And I'm going to make sure that happens," Brown told reporters at a press event prior to Thursday's budget release. "People want to have more child care, they want to have more people locked up, they want to have more rehab more, more, more. More judges. More courtrooms. We have to live within reasonable limits."
So while the blood-letting appears to have stopped for California's courts, there's no transfusion on the horizon. And that leaves a new reality for the state's judicial system, one that favors the haves over the have-nots.
The state used to pick up most of the cost of court operations. Not anymore. Between 2008 and 2012, the general fund share of the judicial budget dropped from 56 percent to 20 percent, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, while the state cut or borrowed more than $1.2 billion from the branch. Funding increasingly comes from civil filing fees and criminal penalties, more volatile money sources that were originally designed to pay for construction projects and other one-time costs.
And that's shifted more bills to court users. Lawyers and litigants can expect to pay an estimated $116 million in new fees on services ranging from first-paper filings to appearance-by-court arrangements over a two-year period that started in 2010, according to research by the Consumer Attorneys of California.
It doesn't stop there. Want a court reporter for a civil case? Better hire one. Many courts have stopped providing them. If the governor's proposal passes, lawyers and litigants can also expect to pay more for copies of records and record searches. They're already waiting longer to reach a court clerk or even a judge in a civil courtroom. Public window hours have been cut back, drop boxes have replaced clerks, employees have been laid off or furloughed and courthouses have been closed 10 in Los Angeles County alone.
"It's taking us eight weeks to process anything left in our drop boxes," said Sacramento County Superior Court Presiding Judge Laurie Earl. "We're not functioning well at all."
Wealthy clients can choose private judging to avoid the hassle. Those of more modest means will have to figure things out on their own. In Sacramento, for instance, 70 percent of family law parties are self-represented. But budget cuts gutted most case-specific services in the court's self-help center in July.
With no restored funding, disparities among trial courts are likely to continue, too. Kings County Superior Court has imposed 27 unpaid furlough days on its workers, closed the Lemoore courthouse, and forced the court executive officer and assistant court executive officer to job-share. San Francisco Superior Court, by contrast, was able to give employees a 3 percent pay raise and a one-time $3,500 bonus in what officials say was a cost-neutral deal involving worker pension and health care contributions.
Things will only get worse over the next 18 months as the trial courts are forced to spend almost all of the remaining dollars in their reserves. For most courts, all of the "easy" budget-trimming solutions will be gone at that point. What happens then? Judiciary leaders' answer has largely been, "We won't let it happen."
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye acknowledged the governor's hold-the-line-on-new-spending mantra.
"But we have to change that by the examples we can bring not only to the governor but to the Legislature of how this isn't living within our means, because we are not even within our means in providing justice to the public," she said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. "So I'm fully aware of the possibility that this is the reality. But this is also January. It's not the June budget."
Cantil-Sakauye said she is trying to come up with a budget-increase dollar figure that she could persuade Brown and legislators would "provide robust service to the public."
The courts have found a few legislative voices calling for restored funding. Senator Noreen Evans, chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee and Judicial Council member, co-authored an unusual joint statement with the chief justice Thursday decrying "detrimental hits" suffered by the judicial budget in recent years.
"We bottomed out last year ... and now is precisely the time when we should look at restoring some of the cuts of previous years," Evans said in an interview Thursday.
Other lawmakers have publicly heeded the governor's call for spending restraint. When a handful of Democrats have spoken of expanding funding, they've usually focused on health care, not courts.
"We're in this little middle-ground area, no more cuts but not sufficient monies to make restorations," said Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who chairs the budget committee.
Brian Kabateck, a Los Angeles lawyer and president of the Consumer Attorneys of California, said court users should pitch lawmakers on boosting funding for publicly popular legal services like adoptions, domestic violence restraining orders and even specialty drug and veterans courts.
"When we start talking about those services I think it's hard for elected officials to turn their backs," Kabateck said.
Restoring money for those programs would free up some resources for trial calendars and it would get state leaders "in the rhythm of getting money back to the courts," he said.
"Everyone would like to see a billion dollars returned to the courts. That's not going to happen in 2013," said Kabateck. "So let's be pragmatic and think about courts as a whole and access to justice."
But even if branch and legal leaders can persuade lawmakers to send some money back to the judiciary, they still have to deal with Brown. He did offer a budget bouquet to the branch by scrapping Department of Finance plans to take trial court reserves a year earlier than planned. But he has remained publicly adamant that he promised California voters last year that he'd control spending if they approved his tax hikes. And they did.
"I accept and embrace my role of saying no," Brown said Thursday.