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As legislators work this week to fill another hole in the courts’ budget, members of the judicial branch are kicking off ambitious plans to insulate the courts from future money problems in the state. Court administrators say the judiciary barely survived this year’s budget cuts. Besides gearing up for more decreases because of another state deficit next year, they’re also working with lawmakers on long-term changes to protect the courts from hits to the state general fund and from legislators who would reduce court funding when other dollars are short. One solution could be ensuring stable court funding with a constitutional amendment, such as 1988′s Proposition 98, which mandates money for education. Other ideas include statutory changes, like basing the budget on court workload, or giving courts the authority to float their own local bonds. “Probably it’s not one answer; it has to be a variety of answers,” said William Vickrey, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. The AOC plans to host a workshop in October on budget issues. After that, Vickrey said, two working groups will be convened. One will examine filing fees, which is the only way courts can generate money for themselves, and one will look further down the road to figure out how to make the courts’ budget less beholden to the whims of the economy. This year, Vickrey and Chief Justice Ronald George found allies in state Sens. Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin, and Joseph Dunn, D-Garden Grove, who helped rescue the courts from Gov. Gray Davis’ budget ax. Both politicians are attorneys who feel that one of the main reasons the courts get shorted at budget time is a lack of court-experienced lawyers in the Legislature. When lawmakers look to make cuts, they often turn to the courts, which traditionally haven’t been successful in defending their bottom line. “We dodged a bullet this year with respect to funding the judiciary,” Dunn said Tuesday, echoing a speech he made over the weekend when he and Ackerman accepted an award from the State Bar for their work on the court budget. But neither of the senators like the idea of a Prop. 98-type fix. That would be overreacting, Ackerman said. “I think it’s just incumbent on legislators to just fund the courts,” Ackerman said. “I don’t think they need a constitutionally dedicated stream.” Ackerman believes the key to protecting the court budget is convincing lawmakers of the importance of the judiciary. To that end, Dunn said he wants to see the State Bar encourage the involvement of “politically sophisticated” lawyers and other judiciary members in budget issues. He would like to see attorneys in face-to-face meetings with legislators, especially newcomers to the Capitol, so they can explain the importance of proper funding. Dunn conceded that politics can be sticky for the bench and Bar.But Dunn thinks it’ll be OK, as long as Bar- and AOC-sponsored groups concentrate on budget matters. “Dodging the bullet could mean next year it’s the courts turn to get slashed” because there are few political repercussions in hitting the least vocal branch of government, said Dunn, who plans to run for attorney general in 2006. Dunn and Ackerman got involved after Davis suggested several controversial policy changes to save money, as well as $134 million in cuts — on top of earlier reductions — to the judiciary’s $2.6 billion budget. The senators crafted an alternate plan that included a raft of new filing fees designed to raise $150 million for the courts. But lawyers, administrators and politicians agree there are problems with depending on fees. Raising fees risks making courthouses less accessible, and, as demonstrated by problems uncovered in just the last few weeks, the fees themselves aren’t always reliable revenue generators. For instance, because of the state budget impasse, courts were not able to implement new fees at the beginning of the fiscal year. That caused an estimated $16 million hole in the 2003-04 budget that administrators fear will have them running back to legislators for more money mid-year. Another hole was created by a problem with one of the fees, a $500 charge for complex litigation. Original estimates had the complex litigation fee raising $18 million. But that was based on a calculation that imposed the fee on every party appearing in a complex case . After Davis signed the budget, plaintiffs attorneys complained, saying they’d have to shell out thousands of dollars in fees for multi-plaintiff actions. This week, legislators and AOC lobbyists crafted a fix that will cap the fees at $10,000 for each side. To make up for the lost revenue, they chose to impose an additional court security fee on civil cases on top of a $20 security fee already included in the budget. Even so, there’s still a $2 million hole in the budget because of the snafu. Raising fees doesn’t win court leaders many friends. Besides causing holes in the budget, the Dunn-Ackerman plan has also elicited complaints from practitioners. Peter Tamases, who manages a four-person firm in Oakland, said he nearly filed a court challenge to the new sliding scale for probate fees, which now range from $185 to $3,500, depending on estate size. “My feeling is that a fee based on the size of an estate is arbitrary. If it’s not a [death] tax then it violates equal protection,” Tamases said. The AOC denies the probate fees are a death tax. For the record, AOC director Vickrey isn’t in love with filing fees, either. “When we have a downturn in the budget, we don’t decide to not have a Legislature exist and we don’t decide not to have a governor. Likewise, we need to make sure that public access to courts [continues],” Vickrey said. “It’s never been part of our system that people should have to pay the full costs of going to court.” Even with all the problems, Vickrey said there was a silver lining to this year’s court budget crisis that he hopes eventually will make for a better future. Besides providing an opportunity for the courts to make powerful friends in the legislature, “many people have become aware of just how fragile the court system is,” Vickrey said.

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