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Chief Justice Ronald George kicked off the annual court administrators conference Wednesday with a call for the judicial branch to unite. It seemed like a no-brainer, but conference attendees said “Amen.” Even though the courts are unified on paper and theoretically operating as one statewide machine, there’s still a lot of work to do. “If we don’t establish ourselves as an independent branch, we’re going to become irrelevant,” said Harry Sheppard, presiding judge of Alameda County. The danger of irrelevance is more pressing than ever because of the current state budget crisis, which has required substantial cuts in the courts. Because politicians hold the pursestrings, the branch needs one “cohesive voice” so it can compete for money in Sacramento, Sheppard said. He is one of about 350 presiding judges and court administrators from around the state gathered in San Francisco this week for the annual California Judicial Administration Conference. Although George sounded a hopeful tone in his opening, conference attendees are clearly worried about the courts’ future, especially in terms of modernization and accessibility. Already, court administrators have said the budget crisis has slowed progress wrought by unification and the shift of funding authority from counties to the state. Los Angeles County Presiding Judge Robert Dukes said his county has been more heavily affected than any other in the state. After a first round of cuts in fall 2002, Los Angeles closed 29 courtrooms, laid off 400 employees and now has a $57 million deficit, he said. The cutbacks directly affected the family and civil sections. And now Dukes is worried about more cuts to come. He fears they will slow down justice on the criminal side, too. “Everybody is holding their breath,” Dukes said. “There are trial courts throughout the state that may not be able to adjudicate their cases.” Dukes picked up on an argument for funding George made. The chief justice said that cutting the judiciary’s budget is as much a public safety issue as are cuts to the Department of Corrections and the attorney general’s office. Where Davis whacked away at other agencies, his proposed budget for this year actually increases Corrections’ budget and hardly hits the AG’s office. Dukes said he doesn’t know what it will take to convince legislators they have a mandate to properly fund the courts or of the idea that “we are a branch of government, not an agency.” Even with the worries, Sheppard of Alameda County wasn’t all doom and gloom. Lean times encourage courts to become more efficient, he said, and suggested they look at fewer jury trials, electronic court reporting, privatized security and other innovations. “There’s a lot of ways we can clean up our own act and that will give us credibility,” Sheppard said.

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