Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
Published: Monday, Jun. 30, 2014 – 12:00 am

When the Legislature and then-Gov. Pete Wilson agreed in 1997 that the state would assume the entire cost of financing California’s largest-in-the-nation court system, judges rejoiced.

It was a big win for Ron George, whom Wilson had appointed as the state’s chief justice a year earlier, and he hailed “a stable and adequate source of funding” as “one of the most important reforms in the California justice systems in the 20th century.”

What seemed like a good idea at the time, however, has become a classic example of how political decisions often carry unintended consequences.

The takeover created a very large state agency that must compete politically with schools, colleges, prisons, health services and myriad other claimants on the state’s always-limited revenues. And the judicial branch has been losing that zero-sum game.

Between 2008 and 2012, court financing was whacked by more than $700 million. Dozens of courtrooms were shuttered due to a lack of funds, even though courts dipped into construction funds, spent down their reserves, furloughed or laid off employees, and closed their doors on certain days of the week.

One local court even staged a garage sale to raise money and keep its judges and employees on the job.

However, as a surge of revenues drives overall state spending to record levels, the court system’s financial woes have continued. They are receiving just a fraction of the new funds that George’s successor, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, says are needed to prevent further cutbacks.

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