Chief Justice Speech - December 16, 2003

Remarks by Chief Justice Ronald M. George
Statewide Meeting on Securing Stable Funding for Justice
December 16, 2003
San Francisco

Good morning. I am pleased so many of you have responded positively to my request for you to come together today to join in a statewide effort to ensure stable funding for a strong, independent, accessible, and fully functioning court system. Bar leaders, judges, court executives, and representatives of our sister branches of government are gathered here, and we hope to draw on the knowledge, expertise, and creativity of each of you in undertaking this effort.

Over the last year we have been reminded just how delicately balanced our justice system is—and how easily that balance can be upset. Significant reductions in court budgets have resulted in courtroom closures, staff layoffs, reduced hours of operation, and increased fees.

It could have been far worse. Fortunately, with the support of leaders of the bench and bar—many of whom are in this room today—we were able, working together, to reach agreements that enabled us to keep our courts open. It cannot be doubted that funding for the judicial branch remains unstable and uncertain. But, on the positive side, I remain firmly convinced that the shift to state funding has been crucial to the stability we have achieved. Counties are confronting dramatic funding shortfalls and already have been forced to close health clinics and libraries and reduce fire, police, and other vital services. Local courts and the services they provide undoubtedly would be on that list were it not for the change in the funding source for the courts.

As California's Chief Justice and Chair of the Judicial Council for the past seven years, I have worked with many individuals in the judicial branch and with others interested in the administration of justice to transform a disparate system of 220 county—based trial courts and six appellate districts into a cohesive statewide judicial branch. We could not have made such tremendous progress without creating a unified court system and without the Trial Court Funding Act of 1997. State funding has made many advances possible, but none more important than establishing that policy set by the Judicial Council now drives the funding priorities of the judicial branch and enables us to advocate effectively for meeting those goals.

Nevertheless, there is reason to fear that we will be facing even more serious budget challenges in the coming year than in the past, given the dire financial situation facing the state. The need to find solutions that will keep our courts accessible to all who need their services has never been greater. To succeed, we must establish funding for the judicial system that will be adequate in good fiscal times and in bad. A strong and independent judicial system is not a luxury to be afforded only when the economy is strong; the judicial branch's ability to provide essential services to the public should not ebb and flow with the capital gains revenue received by the state from the dot com industry.

If we are to accomplish these objectives, we must be realistic as well as innovative. That means confronting directly both the short-term and the long-term challenges to our achieving consistent and reliable funding for the California court system. This will not merely be an interesting theoretical exercise: we are keenly aware that the ramifications of what we do will be concrete and specific.

You already have provided valuable advice by completing the questionnaires that came with your invitation to attend this meeting. There are several activities that you will be asked to engage in today in order to provide us with additional strategies and ideas for further exploration.

First, you will hear from a distinguished panel discussing court funding. The panelists include Senators Joseph Dunn and Richard Ackerman; Presiding Judge Michael Garcia, a Judicial Council member from the Superior Court of Sacramento County; and Finance Director Tina Hansen and Office of Governmental Affairs Director Ray LeBov from the Administrative Office of the Courts.

You also will hear about the current state of the funding crisis and the immediate outlook for the 2004-2005 budget. And, finally, we will be seeking your help in defining the goals of a Commission to Secure Stable Funding for Justice, which I shall be appointing shortly. This commission will work over the next few years to oversee long-term efforts to ensure stable and adequate funding for the judicial branch.

As today's sessions proceed, I believe it will become clear how fragile is the funding of California's justice system. We will need your assistance to communicate this reality to lawyers, judges, legislators, and other decision-makers across the state, as well as to the public. We also need to demonstrate that the bar and the courts, working together, can make a difference in this endeavor. To be effective will take the efforts of all of us working together.

As we proceed today, I encourage you to think broadly and creatively. We do not expect you to create or adopt a specific plan of action, but rather to place ideas on the table. It is indisputably true that we are facing a serious financial situation. But this also is true: a shortage of money is no excuse for a shortage of ideas. It is your ideas that we are after today.

As you are all aware, three major reforms—state funding, unification, and the facilities act—have, in just a few short years, transformed California's judicial branch. We now truly have a statewide system of justice in which policy drives funding. We have reduced duplication and minimized conflicts in our operating systems. We have allocated and used resources where they are most needed. We have developed uniform rules of practice and procedure to eliminate disparities in different jurisdictions.

And there is more work to come: we are in the process of implementing a statewide infrastructure for the courts. This approach will help us reduce costs and engage in consistent management in areas such as fiscal systems, workers' compensation, and information technology. We also anticipate being able to provide comprehensive and timely information to assist policymakers and others in responding effectively.

Today the focus is on stable funding. Total expenditures for the judicial branch amount to about 2½ percent of total state spending, a tiny fraction of what the state spends on education, transportation, law enforcement, and the prison system.

All of those functions are vitally important to good government. Each has a vocal constituency that ensures that its message will be heard. But I submit that administering justice is no less important—and in some ways is even more fundamental to the stability of our society.

It has been said that the courts are about giving individuals an alternative to raising their fists and striking out at others. An insistence on justice—and a forum for rendering justice—is the hallmark of a civilized society. The role of an independent strong judiciary is not always well understood and too frequently is taken for granted. The constituency we must rely upon to speak for justice is represented here in this room—lawyers and judges, court administrators, and policymakers. We must ensure that the critical role played by the justice system does not get short shrift in the complex business of government.

I believe we have a choice: pay now or pay later. Pay now to fund innovations that have been proven to work—drug courts, for example, and domestic violence and juvenile mental health courts—so that society can avoid paying the costs (even greater costs) later, and so that the individuals involved do not return to the courts on our criminal dockets. If we do not pay now to ensure that there is a sufficient number of judges and courtrooms to resolve contract disputes and other business matters in a timely fashion, we will pay later in the loss of revenues when businesses, finding that obtaining justice and resolving disputes is too costly or too slow, decide to move to other locations. Pay now, to ensure that all individuals have meaningful access to the courts, or pay later in increased disrespect for the law and increasing social turmoil.

Not very long ago, it regularly took at least five years to get disputes before a judge or jury. Fast-track rules, requiring increased management by the judges, resolved the problem, and the vast majority of cases now are heard within one year. But these gains are at risk. As continued budget reductions require courts to set priorities, criminal cases by law must take precedence. It may be only a matter of time before serious backlogs reappear in our civil courts.

Efforts to improve jury service, to provide enhanced tools for pro per litigants, to better assist families in need, and to allow courts to respond quickly and effectively to appropriate community needs also are all at risk.

I intend to do what I can by working with the leadership of the other two branches of California's government. In my early meetings with Governor Schwarzenegger, he has expressed interest in the courts and indicated an awareness of and concern for the problems resulting from chronic underfunding. Legislative leaders—some of them with us today—have demonstrated a keen understanding of the needs of the courts and have acted affirmatively to help meet those needs.

The resources we are relying upon today are your expertise and creative thinking. We are not asking for money; we ask for your ideas. I intend to create a Commission to Secure Stable Funding for Justice, and some of you will be asked to serve. But all of you, and your colleagues, are integral to our efforts to bring greater visibility to the value of fair and consistent funding for California's judicial system.

Today's meeting is an historic effort to begin to deal with the difficult funding issues we face—not just next year or the year after but in the decades ahead. We expect no one-day miracle, no Eureka! moment at the end of this session. What we ask for today is your time; what we hope for in the future is your commitment to ensuring the strength and independence of the California judicial system. With those resources available to us, I am confident we shall succeed.

Thank you again for being with us today. I look forward to hearing the results of your deliberations and discussions.

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