By Howard Mintz
Posted: 01/30/2011 09:00:00 PM PST
Updated: 01/31/2011 08:32:30 AM PST

When California’s judicial leaders decided in 2009 to close courthouses one day per month to save money, it provoked an unprecedented backlash around the state.

Judges who usually keep their criticisms under wraps howled in protest, some forming a rebel group to resist the move. Others, such as court employee unions, took dead aim at the court system’s ever-growing bureaucracy and spending on a $2 billion technology program.

But for the largest state court system in the country, that tempest may just be a prelude to what is coming next.

Gov. Jerry Brown, as part of his plan to slash state spending, has proposed cutting $200 million from the California courts in the next budget, on top of the more than $100 million court officials have been forced to cut in the past year. And the prospect of closing the courts again looms large over what is already a fierce debate over how much the justice system can afford to cut — from Santa Clara County, where court workers protested outside the court administration building last week, to Los Angeles, where judicial leaders warned of a crisis if such drastic cuts are required.

In an interview with the Mercury News, new Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye vowed to make keeping the courts open “my top priority.” But the chief justice also conceded that Brown’s proposed cuts put the judiciary in an even more tenuous spot than two years ago, when the court closures were approved to save about $90 million, less than half of the cut now in Brown’s plan. Just as cities insist they should not have to sacrifice their redevelopment agencies, court officials plan to urge Brown to reconsider his cuts to the judicial branch.

“We are probably now in a worse position” than 2009, Cantil-Sakauye said. “That’s a deep, deep cut we don’t think we can sustain.”

There is, however, already contentious disagreement over whether the courts can weather such a cut. In a report last week already blasted by court officials around the state, the California legislative analyst found the judiciary can save the $200 million — and much more — through a series of measures, including shifting money from courts that have reserves or may get more money each year than they need to handle their caseloads, including those in Santa Clara County.

California’s trial courts can save $60 million from 13 counties that are, essentially, overpaid each year, according to the legislative analyst’s report. The Northern California courts on the list include Santa Clara, San Mateo, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Marin counties.

Drew Soderborg, who authored the report, said $14 million of the savings would come from Santa Clara
County. The report also concluded that the county’s $12 million reserve fund is another way to save money and avoid court closures; the legislative analyst estimates $150 million could be saved in the next few years by tapping into such reserves across California.

But David Yamasaki, Santa Clara County Superior Court’s chief executive, said the report was wrong, and that all of the court’s money is committed to crucial needs.

“I completely disagree with the report’s conclusion on this issue,” Yamasaki said in an e-mail. “I believe that the analysis conducted was flawed and was based upon erroneous assumptions, which therefore makes their conclusions entirely faulty.”

There are other conflicts emerging over the court system’s spending. Court employee unions, including Santa Clara’s, have raised serious questions about the judiciary’s plan to push forward with overhauling the court system’s technology programs, as well as increased spending at the state Administrative Office of the Courts, the court system’s bureaucracy. In a report in late 2009, the Mercury News found that AOC spending and staff doubled over a five-year period as the courts hit a fiscal crisis.

With the governor’s proposed new cuts on the way, the AOC this week drew more unwanted attention because of a decision to hire 18 new staffers for the technology program at a cost of more than $3 million. The Alliance of California Judges, a group established in the aftermath of the court closures, insists any spending cuts should start with the AOC and the tech overhaul.

“How we actually keep our local courts open to the public under these circumstances is unknown,” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, a leader in the judges’ group. “But those who have engaged in these spending decisions should be required to explain how exactly that demonstrates the priority is open courts.”

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