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The Judicial Council took the first step Friday to ensure appointed appellate counsel get paid during a state budget impasse, a move it hopes will stave off an exodus of attorneys from the pool that represents poor defendants. While presenting its report on the late-added agenda item, council staff acknowledged that getting such a bill passed through the Legislature would be an “uphill battle.” That was probably the understatement of the day given the state’s ongoing budget debacle. From the council’s announcement of awards for innovative court programs (emphasizing that some might also save money), to the final agenda item, an accounting of proposed budget cuts, the effect of the state’s fiscal woes on the courts came up again and again. “I . . . will attempt to do everything possible to protect access to our courts,” said Chief Justice Ronald George. “I will be meeting personally with the governor, as well as members of the Legislature, to discuss how we can work together to protect the vital functions of the judicial branch.” In response to the budget crisis, the Judicial Council has already curtailed its legislative proposals for the 2003-04 Sacramento session and put off many of its plans to modernize the courts. Last week, all divisions of the court system took heavy hits in a package of cuts suggested by Gov. Gray Davis. The Legislature must approve final cuts. At Friday’s meeting, finance director Christine Hansen pointed out that most of the court budget is compulsory, making trims difficult. George said filing fee increases and enhanced fines are not out of the equation, even though both were already jacked up twice in the last year. Council staff expects civil and family divisions to bear the brunt. Council member Robert Dukes said the civil system in Los Angeles County, where he is assistant presiding judge, “could be brought to a grinding halt.” The appellate attorney pay proposal was another example of how the state’s woes adversely impact the judicial system. Those lawyers, who’ve gotten paid the same wages of $65 to $85 an hour for a decade, did not see paychecks between July and September because of the state budget impasse. Once the budget was approved, they got several million dollars in back pay. The council wants appointed lawyers to get paid, whether the budget has been passed or not. The Administrative Office of the Courts believes budget snafus combined with the low wages has led to a decrease in the pool of attorneys from nearly 1,500 a few years ago to fewer than 1,000 today. The council did not make a final decision on whether to take the plan to the Legislature, but will wait for a recommendation from its policy committee. In the meantime, the council approved sponsoring other legislation. Most proposals suggest technical changes to current law. However, the council did vote to introduce a bill in this session that would make some subordinate judicial officers — mostly court commissioners — full-fledged judges. Last year, a similar bill died in the Senate. Legislators, who hold the power to create new judgeships, felt the council was stepping on their toes. This time around, the council hopes to avoid that conflict by detailing exactly which spots it wants elevated. In other business, the council created a working group to study court security — another area that could save the courts money, members said. And the council implemented more changes to ethics standards for neutral arbitrators. The changes to the rules, which were passed earlier this year, stemmed from public comments and three bills signed by Gov. Davis. Although staff said the changes had nothing to do with the suit filed by the securities industry against the council over ethics rules, one council member prompted laughter when he said: “If I vote in favor of this proposal, will I be sued personally?”

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