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SACRAMENTO — Orange County Democratic Sen. Joseph Dunn is riding to the rescue of court administrators this week as he leads a bipartisan push to lessen budget cuts. To make ends meet, the state senator wants to raise filing fees and shift money from other state agencies instead of adopting Gov. Gray Davis’ controversial money-saving ideas. Legislators and court administrators are still hashing out the details, but so far, where Davis proposed $133.7 million in unspecified cuts to the trial and appeal courts, Dunn wants to slash only $93.5 million, said William Vickrey, administrative director of the courts. “Under Sen. Dunn’s plan, it’s still going to be a significant challenge but . . . we think that it can be done,” Vickrey said. “We just don’t know how to make [Davis'] system work.” Also, Davis had hoped to save an additional $58 million by allowing non-sheriffs to bid on court security and by using some electronic court reporting. Dunn opposes those policy changes and wants to find other ways to save and raise money, said Christian Schreiber, one of his legislative aides. Dunn will likely accept the governor’s ideas for raising fees for court security, trial motion and appeals, and he could propose additional increases, Vickrey said. The bipartisan proposal also has support from Assembly members, Vickrey added. Dunn’s plan is the first counterpoint from any legislator to Davis’ proposal for the courts, which the governor laid out in January and revised last week. Previous budget wrangling between Democrats and Republicans over how to deal with the state’s record shortfall did not include specific details on the judiciary. Court administrators have warned since late last year that the state budget crisis threatens to derail their plans to modernize and make the courts more accessible statewide. Although the courts account for only 2.5 percent of the state budget, the administrators said Davis’ cuts would have severe ramifications — especially on family and civil law — because so many court functions are mandatory. Besides patching the 2003-04 judicial budget, Dunn also would like to see structural reforms, such as finding independent funding sources for the courts, Schreiber said. At a State Bar meeting over the weekend, Dunn said linking the trial courts to state government might have been a mistake. As long as courts are tied to the budget, he said, the independence of the judiciary is at risk. Now that it has control of the purse strings, the Legislature could begin trying to shape court policy, he said. “This administration does not see the judicial branch of government as an equal branch of government” when it comes to funding, Dunn said. Part of the problem lies with the Legislature’s makeup, he said — not enough lawyers and too many young people “hostile” to the court system. State Sen. Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, pointed to those beliefs to explain what he admitted was unusual bipartisan support for Dunn’s proposal. “It’s a separate branch of government, and you have to treat it that way,” Ackerman said. “You have to give them a little more respect. You want to maintain the independence of the judiciary.” Besides approving fee increases, Ackerman said, legislators would probably have to shift money from other state agencies to the judiciary to pay for the plan. Those likely would be agencies within the purview of the budget subcommittee that Dunn chairs, Ackerman said. Ackerman, who also sits on that budget subcommittee, said he and Dunn were able to join forces because they were both lawyers and appreciate the importance of maintaining funding for an independent judiciary. Before he entered politics, Ackerman was a transactional attorney. Dunn, who is from Garden Grove, was a partner at the Newport Beach plaintiffs firm Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson. He plans to run for attorney general in 2006. Ackerman ran for AG last year and hasn’t announced whether he’s going to try again. Dunn’s supporters have included the powerful plaintiffs bar, which also would likely welcome one of their own in charge of the Department of Justice. Though the Consumer Attorneys of California has expressed concerns about cutting the court budget, Ackerman said he didn’t get any strong whiffs of politicking. “[Otherwise] I wouldn’t have helped,” Ackerman said. “I think he’s doing it for the right reason.” On Wednesday, assuming the budget process moves as planned, Dunn will ask his budget subcommittee to approve the proposal. From there, it would have to go through two other committees before the Legislature considers passage. Associate Editor Mike McKee contributed to this story.

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