Chief Justice Speech - December 13, 2002

Delivered by Chief Justice Ronald M. George
To the Judicial Council Business Meeting
San Francisco
December 13, 2002

I want to take several minutes at this Judicial Council meeting to address the implications of the state budget reductions for the judicial branch, after which we will have an opportunity to hear from the AOC's chief financial officer, Tina Hansen; she will review budget actions over the last 18 months and the Governor's pending proposals.

It is clear to us all that California and other states across the nation are dealing with a severe financial crisis. California is facing a budget deficit of more than $20 billion. Across the board, state and county operations are taking substantial budget cuts and making difficult decisions that are having a direct impact on services to the public. The budget for the Governor's top priority, state education programs, is expected to fall by more than $3 billion; 6,000 vacant state positions have been eliminated, and layoffs are expected for executive branch agencies. Counties throughout the state have instituted hiring freezes and reduced funding for health and welfare services and public safety. State court systems in over 45 states are experiencing budget reductions.

In California, the judicial branch was one of the first to voluntarily step forward in the spring of 2001 to participate in this painful but necessary process. In the last fiscal year, we reduced our budget requests by $213 million. We also absorbed a budget reduction of $37.6 million-$28.3 million for the trial courts and $9.3 million for the appellate courts and the AOC. This year again, we were required to make further one-time reductions of $154 million-5 percent of the total budget for the branch. Now, with the state's budget deficit continuing to grow, the Governor has proposed an additional $60 million in midyear funding reductions, and reductions totalling $230 million in the fiscal year 2003-2004 budget.

I appreciate that presiding judges and court executives of the trial courts, and administrative presiding justices and clerk/administrators of the appellate courts, already have made great efforts to manage current-year reductions in ways that have the least impact on access to justice for our communities. Trial courts have had to reduce hours, services, and even staff to operate within their reduced budgets. We also have shared with you budget management guidelines designed to assist the appellate courts and the AOC in reducing costs. These actions include:

  • A required 90-day vacancy period after an employee leaves a position, and a review to see whether the position can be eliminated;
  • Reductions in the salary adjustment levels for staff;
  • Restrictions on in-state and out-of-state travel, and setting a limit of two meetings per year for advisory committee meetings through the end of the fiscal year; and
  • Cutbacks in staffing levels.

As a branch of state government, we fully expect to continue to be part of the reduction plan, and I have indicated to the Governor and the Legislature that we will join with our fellow branches of government in taking the necessary steps to address the serious funding shortfalls.

At the same time, I have emphasized that the judicial branch is responsible for the fair administration of justice in our democratic system. We have a duty to protect the vital constitutional role of our courts in providing timely access to impartial justice for the people of California.

While the judicial branch budget may be the "weakest branch," and while it is only about 2 percent of the state's budget (and less than 2 percent of the General Fund budget), the judiciary is part of state government and must continue to bear some of the pain in responding to our state's financial crisis.

As we consider how to reduce our budget-and we shall reduce the courts' budgets-we must fulfill the public's trust to protect the values of our American justice system, which make our system of government so unique. In making appropriate, responsible decisions, this council and all decisionmakers must guard against the temptation to make swift, across-the-board decisions that may have unintended consequences of loss far greater than this financial crisis.

In doing so, we must be cognizant of the limitations imposed by the guaranties of liberty in our federal and state Constitutions (and related state statutory limitations) that preclude any reduction in approximately two-thirds of the judicial branch budget. Therefore, we must guard against sweeping, across-the-board reductions that may unjustly limit access of our citizens to their courts in vital areas such as contract disputes, personal injury, and family law. All government leaders share the responsibility to protect the judicial branch as a co-equal, co-reliant branch, responsible and accountable for the fair administration of justice, and all three branches of government share responsibility to ensure equal access for all to strong, fair, and impartial courts.

This does not mean we cannot make temporary reductions in the courts' budgets while protecting the public's right to access. Indeed, we have done so this year by making reductions of $154 million. We may have pushed the limits of what is possible when one considers the regrettable partial closure of some courts and the delay of vital reforms. While we need to carefully consider whether we can make the same level of reductions next year, we can make additional reductions if we have the strength of will to re-examine how we conduct our business in many areas (such as security, traffic adjudication, maintaining the record of court proceedings, etc.).

As we move forward in this uncertain fiscal environment, our goal is to continue to fully participate in discussions and to ensure that reductions are made in a responsible way so that public access to the courts in vital areas is not unreasonably impaired. We will leave no stone unturned in reviewing options, including possible statutory changes and restructuring of operations, that will allow the courts to function more efficiently while controlling costs. We will also consider every possible option to increase revenues, including fee increases and enhanced fine collection programs.

In response to concerns expressed to me by judges, lawyers, court employees, and concerned citizens, I-with the help of our two fellow branches of government-will attempt to do everything possible to protect access to our courts. We shall attempt to limit the adverse consequences on vital reforms that are aimed at providing access to the poor, improving public access to court records, improving the quality of criminal history files, and maintaining specialized courts focused on drug abuse, domestic violence, mental health, and complex litigation.

I will be meeting personally with the Governor, as well as members of the Legislature, to discuss how we can work together to protect the vital functions of the judicial branch. Rest assured that we will be working hard to protect court employees and to maintain the tremendous advances we already have made in improving access to justice for the public we serve.

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