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The state budget disaster is curtailing the Judicial Council’s ongoing overhaul of California’s judicial system and threatens to slow down plans to modernize and improve access to courts. Not only is the current judicial branch budget under attack, but now council staff has put the kibosh on big-ticket legislation in the upcoming session, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. “The crisis focuses attention on maintaining current operations and not pursuing other things that require money,” said William Vickrey, administrative director of the courts. That’s a change from recent years, when the council successfully sponsored a series of high-profile bills as part of its plan to transfer authority over courts from counties to the state and develop the infrastructure to run what is now one, massive court system. Although most of the heavy lifting in that conversion is done, the next step is expensive: The council wants a bond measure to raise $1 billion to $2 billion to upgrade and maintain court facilities across the state, Vickrey said. To help pay for facilities maintenance in the meantime, the Legislature already approved a temporary increase in civil filing fees and criminal penalties. Legislators also raised filing fees at the end of the last session to help fill in gaps in the general fund budget. The council and its staff have not yet decided whether the 2003 session is the right time to attempt to get the bond measure passed, Vickrey said. Staff members are running a financial analysis that Vickrey expects will be finished by March. By then, the council should have a better sense of whether the current session, which began today, is the right time for the bond, Vickrey said. In order to get on the 2004 ballot, the bond measure must go through the Legislature in this session or the next. But with California already facing a budget deficit of at least $20 billion over the next two years, things aren’t looking good. Friday, Gov. Gray Davis announced $10 billion in cost-saving measures, over two years, across the state. His proposal includes cutting the trial courts’ budget by $50 million this year and $200 million next year. He also wants $10 million in immediate cuts out of the rest of the judiciary — which includes the appellate courts and the AOC — and $29 million in cuts next year. Vickrey called the reductions “very significant.” They’re on top of belt-tightening implemented last summer, when trial courts had $148 million trimmed from their $2.2 billion portion of the judicial branch’s $2.5 billion budget. At that same time, the appellate courts and AOC took $6.7 million in cuts from their $300 million portion. For the last two weeks, Vickrey, Chief Justice Ronald George and others have been examining the budget in expectation of the cuts. Among other things, they’re considering a hiring freeze for the AOC and appellate courts, reduced travel budgets and holding back the implementation of new technologies. Vickrey said he expected to announce the final decision on new cost-saving measures early this week. As for the council’s plans to continue improving the courts, the budget crisis has sent other reforms to the back burner. Most notably, the council is putting off plans to ask legislators to increase pay for judges and jurors, said Ray LeBov, director of the council’s Office of Governmental Affairs. Currently, jurors get $15, a raise from the $5 they got as recently as 1999. LeBov said even that increase was a step down from the $40 per day the chief justice and others wanted. Judges’ pay is even more of a problem, something the council believes is the main reason why bench retention is slipping. “[The council] wants to give judges raises so they stop leaving to go to private [practice], and so they are attracted to leave their current jobs” when appointed, LeBov said. “We want to make it possible for the best and brightest to come to and stay on the bench.” The council also would like to add more judges across the state, Vickrey said. If the council’s wish list is on hold, what does it plan to do in Sacramento during this session? Nothing is set in stone but so far, the council appears likely to sponsor mostly technical legislation. Members are scheduled to discuss and vote on the council’s legislative plan at their next meeting Friday. The agenda has only 10 items. Although nine of those are in the consent portion, indicating council staff sees them as uncontroversial, one item deals with elevating the positions of certain subordinate judicial officers to judgeships. LeBov doesn’t expect much opposition to that idea because initial costs would be low. Those currently in those positions wouldn’t be immediately converted, so the raises they would get as judges would be dribbled out over several years, LeBov said. “In recognition of the state’s fiscal situation, it’s not appropriate to pursue anything that has significant costs associated with it,” LeBov said.

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