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Court administrators and public sector attorneys were crossing their fingers Friday, hoping their funding was not in jeopardy as the shape of the state budget remained in question. Forty-six days into California’s new fiscal year, the budget was still stuck in the Assembly, where lawmakers have been unable to agree on an acceptable spending plan. The hold-up has meant that any public entity’s funding — including the judiciary’s approximately $2.6 billion — could fall victim to renewed scrutiny and cutbacks. But so far, members of the judiciary have kept their cool. “We’ll feel better when the budget has passed, but at the moment I’m very cautiously optimistic that there will not be significant changes,” said William Vickrey, the administrative director of the courts. The judiciary was already hit hard in May when Gov. Gray Davis unveiled a revised budget proposal for fiscal 2002-03 that slashed new funding for the courts by $62 million. According to the Administrative Office of the Courts, the judiciary’s additional funding in the 2002-03 budget, combined with reductions to existing funding, yields a net decline of $52.4 million. While the judiciary branch represents a small piece of the overall budget, it’s especially vulnerable since it doesn’t have a vocal constituency to protect it, said Vickrey. “I wouldn’t say it’s safe,” Vickrey said of the court’s funding in the budget. “I think if they really go in and start opening budgets then I think that they will start looking at everything again.” At issue is a $23.6 billion state budget gap, caused primarily by the collapse of California’s dot-com economy. To make up for this massive revenue shortfall, the new budget curtails government spending while raising taxes by $4.6 billion. But Republican members of the Assembly, some of whose votes are necessary to pass the budget, are pushing for more spending cuts and fewer new taxes as a way to reach the same end. More cuts to the judiciary are always possible, acknowledged Chief Justice Ronald George. “But we remain optimistic that with the things that we’ve taken off the table and the cuts that we’ve voluntarily made, that we’ve done our part.” Last fall, George voluntarily pared down his request for new 2002-03 state funding by $131 million. The move meant that plans to add judges and to upgrade the courts’ technology systems were put on hold. As the chief justice, George also serves as the chair of the Judicial Council, whose job it is to request and negotiate resources for the courts. George said any further cuts to the judiciary would pose a real problem. “Depending upon the extent of them, there is always the potential of impairing our ability to serve the public with basic court functions,” George said. Rising labor costs and caseloads already took a toll on some courts during the past year. San Francisco Superior Court laid off 17 part-time clerks in October and scaled back its filing hours. Gordon Park-Li, the chief executive officer of the San Francisco Superior Court, said more cuts may mean even higher staff vacancy levels at the court. But he stressed that he had no idea whether judiciary funding might be cut back further during the current budget impasse. “We’re just waiting, waiting to see what happens,” Park-Li said. Meanwhile, the state’s district attorneys and the attorney general’s office are also keeping a close eye on what’s happening. “Until the budget is finalized, the status of the budget is of considerable concern to district attorneys,” said Larry Brown, the executive director of the California District Attorneys Association. Under Davis’ revised budget, district attorneys took an $11 million hit as a result of proposed cuts to vertical prosecution grants. The district attorneys successfully got those cuts removed when the budget moved through the state Senate. “I think that we have a strong case to make as to why the programs were worthy of complete funding,” said Brown. “We certainly don’t want that success to be fleeting.”

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