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The California Judicial Council on Friday approved an ambitious legislative agenda that includes giving judges retirement benefits after only 10 years and floating $6 billion in bonds to renovate the state’s aging courthouses. The council also plans to ask the Legislature for pay raises for judges and a more favorable funding formula for state appeal courts. But California Chief Justice Ronald George acknowledged that the council may not get all of the items on its wish list in a year when state lawmakers face a budget deficit of more than $7 billion. “I hope they will have the funds to provide the dollars for these efforts,” he said in an interview. “We don’t always get what we want.” Kate Howard, chief legislative lobbyist for the Administrative Office of the Courts, outlined the new goals to Judicial Council members. But she provided few figures on what they may cost the state. George told council members that state Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Whittier, had agreed to sponsor legislation to put the court facilities bond before voters. But AOC leaders said they have not yet determined which lawmakers are willing to carry their other bills, details of which remain to be worked out. One of the council’s central goals in Sacramento next year is allowing judges to retire with partial pensions after only 10 years on the bench. Currently they must serve at least 20 years before receiving any retirement benefits. But AOC leaders said the average age of judges when they are elected or appointed has been creeping up, and now hovers around age 50. Under current rules, a jurist of that age must stay on the bench until at least age 70 to receive pension benefits. The AOC wants judges who assumed their posts on or after November 1994, and who are at least 63 now, to be able to retire after 10 years and receive 3.75 percent of their pay for every year of service. The change was recommended by the council’s Policy Coordination and Liaison Committee to reflect the needs of the aging judiciary and as a way of attracting qualified judges to the bench. The California Judges Association supports the plan, according to its president, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James Mize. Howard presented a separate proposal to extend early retirement benefits to judges elected or promoted before November 1994. No funds are available for that under the current retirement system. Howard wants the Legislature to appropriate the money, though she presented no figures Friday on how much is needed. The $6 billion bond issue, a top priority for the courts, is intended to pay for repairing or renovating court buildings included in the Five-Year Capital Outlay Plan approved by the council in February. The plan encompasses 201 projects in all 58 California counties, including seismic improvements. The bonds are slated for the 2006 ballot. If voters reject the measure, the Judicial Council could choose to cut the size of the bond issue and try again to get it passed, or raise uniform filing fees to cover capital improvements, said Kim Davis, the AOC’s director of court construction. Other legislative goals approved by the council include unspecified raises for all judges in the next two years and ending judges’ 8 percent retirement contributions when they have served for 20 years. The council also agreed to ask lawmakers to change the funding formula for the appeal courts, Supreme Court and Administrative Office of the Courts. Those entities currently use zero-based budgeting, but AOC officials want to index their funding to rises in California’s population and personal income. Indexing was recently applied to state trial courts, giving them $90 million to $100 million more at the start of the budget year than they would have had under zero-based budgeting. Since trial courts make up the lion’s share of the judicial budget, extending indexing to the other courts wouldn’t represent a big fiscal jump, George told the council. Both George and Howard acknowledged in interviews that the Judicial Council’s agenda may be a tough sell in the Legislature. Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill predicts the state’s budget shortfall may reach $7.3 billion in the coming fiscal year. George told council members that he has already met privately with state Finance Director Tom Campbell, state Senate President Don Perata, and key legislators including Escutia, Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Dunn. He said he also plans to meet with the governor soon. In an interview, George added that he recognizes the council may not get everything it wants and may have to compromise. For example, he said, the council’s plan to ask for 50 new judge positions may have to be delayed so that some of the new slots are funded for only the last few months of the fiscal year.

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