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SACRAMENTO — The speech is called the State of the Judiciary, but Chief Justice Ronald George could also title it My Annual Plea For Money. That’s what it’s been for the past few years, and things weren’t any different Tuesday, when the chief appeared before a joint session of the state Assembly and Senate for his annual half-hour summary of life in the judicial branch. According to George and other administrators, things have gotten a lot harder for the courts since 2001, when the chief last made a cautious pitch for more money for court programs. During his speech, George appeared to be laying out reasons for both Democrats and Republicans to preserve the court’s budget. However, only about 70 out of 120 legislators showed up for the speech. Since 2001, George hasn’t asked for increases, just a preservation of the status quo until the state can crawl out from under its historic deficit. But now he and others are warning against leaning too heavily on the judicial branch. Three years of budget cuts are adding up, and courts are cutting back hours and services. Now courts are also starting to see a backlog of cases that is forcing them to shift resources away from civil matters to meet time requirements in criminal cases. George warned that basic justice will be lost if cuts continue. “I cannot emphasize too strongly how firmly I believe that further cuts to our courts will not achieve net savings — instead, they will increase the overall costs for our society,” George said. The speech was short on big news. George and other administrators have put out a doom and gloom message for months. But the address was the chief’s chance to get legislators’ attention by speaking of consequences in terms he hopes they will understand. In a message seemingly directed at Democrats, George said less money in the courts means fewer resources for lawsuits and fewer programs for needy people who need legal help but can’t afford lawyers. And if there were a Republican message, it would be that slower courts are another way California is bad for businesses. “Civil litigants — including firms doing business in California — will be confronted with increasingly scarce court services, complicating and delaying the resolution of their disputes,” George said. George no doubt hopes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is paying attention, too. The governor’s 2004-05 budget proposes cutting $70 million out of the judicial branch’s $2.5 billion budget. On top of that, Schwarzenegger declined to fund $100 million in mandatory expenses the state normally covers. Those cuts would be in addition to recent years of scaled-back budgets, as well as a $40 million deficit in this year’s court budget. “An underfunded judicial system also will impede our state’s economic recovery. If civil cases cannot be resolved in a reasonable time, or if court services decline so that public safety and security suffer, business establishments and individuals simply will go elsewhere,” George said. “We look to you and to the executive branch to provide us with the resources essential to carry out our constitutional responsibilities, just as our sister branches continue to fulfill theirs.” George and other court administrators expect that Schwarzenegger’s staff will restore the mandatory funding, but no one really knows what will happen until budget negotiations between legislators and the governor’s office begin in earnest during the next few weeks. Although George said he was “encouraged” by the work of several legislators — including Sens. Joseph Dunn, D-Santa Ana, and Richard Ackerman, R-Irvine — for their attempts to protect the courts, he also warned what will happen if others continue to treat the courts as an ugly stepchild, rather than as a co-equal branch. “Curtailing the services provided by the courts may be reflected as savings on an account ledger. But such savings will be illusory, because if court services shrink, the financial demands placed on the Legislature and the executive branch will expand for funding prisons, health and social services, and business development,” George said. “In short, cutting the courts now will result in greater costs to government later.”

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