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Gov. Gray Davis made Chief Justice Ronald George a happy man Monday by signing a bill that sets the blueprint for how the Judicial Council will gain control of 451 court buildings statewide. “We are very gratified by the efforts of the governor and the Legislature to assist us in the administration of justice in our state,” George said in a cell phone interview while traveling to Sacramento, where he met with Davis to announce the signing of SB 1732. The Trial Court Facilities Act was sponsored by the Council and the California State Association of Counties. George, chairman of the Judicial Council, had lobbied hard for the legislation, the last in a trio of major bills passed in recent years. In the other two measures, the courts were unified and their funding brought under control of the state. But this latest piece could be the hardest yet for lawyers to swallow because it temporarily jacks up initial filing fees in order to raise money to help pay for court construction and improvement. The Trial Court Funding Act of 1997 already raised several categories of fees. And lawyers could see even more increases if the governor signs another bill still sitting on his desk. The other bill — AB 3000, an omnibus budget package — adds a 10 percent surcharge for certain civil filings until July 2007. SB 1732 adds another $10 to first appearance fees, which in 2004 goes up to $15. Both bills sunset in 2007. First appearance fees of $185, for example, would jump to $213.50 on Jan. 1, 2003. Groups representing the plaintiffs and defense bars said they are OK with the increases; they agree that court facilities are in poor shape. “Our main concern was to keep it as low as possible and to make sure the money goes to construction, rather than the general fund,” said Robert Cartwright Jr., president of Consumer Attorneys of California and a solo practioner in San Francisco. “It was important to have the agreement of various bar groups on various filing fee surcharges in order to enhance the likelihood that the bill [1732] would pass,” said Ray LeBov, governmental affairs director for the Administrative Office of the Courts. Funds raised by SB 1732 go into a new kitty called the State Court Facilities Construction Fund. Aside from filing fees, the bill also raises money for court administration by redirecting to the state the money counties now spend to maintain the buildings. Money from AB 3000 goes into the general fund. Some money will be available immediately, allowing the Judicial Council to repair courthouses that are so decrepit they’re actually unsafe, George said. The filing fee increases are scheduled to sunset in 2007, but George said the council could ask the Legislature to extend them, if necessary. The council also hopes to get a bond measure passed by then to raise even more money. The negotiations over SB 1732 were intense, with the Judicial Council trying to balance the interests of the plaintiffs and defense bars with the concerns of politicians, who were trying to sort out their own budget crisis. Carried by Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, the bill was at one point stuck in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, George said. “The bill was really on a life-support system in mid-August,” George said. So George called the committee chair, Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and got the bill moving again, George said. He said he was able to clear up legislators’ concerns about costs. “The bill really will finance itself,” George said. It passed the Assembly on Aug. 30 and the Senate the next day, the same week that two other bills affecting the pocketbooks of the plaintiffs bar moved through in a flurry of activity that closed the legislative session. SB 688, by Sen. President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, gave plaintiffs a major time advantage in summary judgment motions. SB 800 was a compromise bill between plaintiffs and builders that reformed construction defect litigation. When the construction defects bill passed, a lobbyist for the defense bar told The Recorder he believed the plaintiffs bar used its political muscle to trade SB 800 for SB 688, a charge that Cartwright denied. It wasn’t just the plaintiffs bar that had a good year in Sacramento. The Judicial Council did well, too. Besides SB 1732, the governor signed seven other bills sponsored by the Judicial Council, including: � SB 1396, which requires courts to come up with security plans. � AB 2879, which improves retirement benefits for judges. � SB 2001, which establishes a workers’ compensation fund for court employees. � AB 2321, which sets out the procedure for the Judicial Council to respond to tort claims. � AB 3028, which makes minor changes to court operations. � AB 3027, which details changes to civil practice and jury waivers. � AB 1698, which continues, with some changes, the Legal Document Assistant registration program.

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