Seyfarth Synopsis: Sustained cuts to California’s court system have strained access to justice across the state, and not enough is being done to fix the situation. But, you can help!

Since the “Great Recession” of 2008, California’s court system has seen unprecedented reductions in funding, further straining the resources of an already overburdened court system. A 2013 report from the California Judicial Council (“CJC”) estimated that the budget crisis had resulted in the closing of 50 courthouses, 175 courtrooms, and more than 25 branch courts. Accompanying these closings were 4,000 staff layoffs, imposition of furlough days and reduced hours of service, and significant other service reductions, affecting self-help services and the availability of court reporting services (in civil cases), and court interpreters.

As a result, those seeking access to justice during the last eight years have found themselves waiting longer to get all kinds of cases heard and filings processed. The matters affected have included motions for summary judgment to resolve cases without trial, restraining orders, family court mediations, and even criminal trials. The CJC estimates that more than two million Californians have lost access to justice in their communities. Attorneys report waiting several months for hearings that could be heard in 16 court days under the Code of Civil Procedure, and sometimes find that their first available hearing date is a date after the date set for trial. Some attorneys have been in trial for weeks in matters that called for only a number of days, because of shortened court hours and increased judicial caseloads. One retired judge predicted that, without additional funding, cases filed in 2014 could take 5 years to get to trial.

Other courts have decaying infrastructure and facilities that can create unsafe environments, including infestations of rats, mold, ADA access issues, and shootouts due to inadequate security.

Counties that have decided to improve facilities despite the Great Recession have found themselves scrambling to pay for construction after court revenues declined and state funding was withdrawn. And even where courts can find the money, it has not been that simple…The Santa Clara County Superior Court recently saw its 400 employees strike for 8 days because they had gone eight years without a raise. The strike effectively paralyzed the court. Employees criticized the County for going forward with a $208-million-dollar Family Justice Center courthouse instead of increasing their pay.

Some modest improvements in court operations have occurred since the CJC’s report, but most courts still operate under a significant budget shortage. Details for each county are available in County Budget Snapshots.

What’s being done to fix this situation? The CJC has instituted measures to manage the impact of underfunding on the courts, but the major “fix” involves taking from “donor” counties who already have scarce resources. The “Workload Allocation and Funding Methodology,” instituted by the CJC in April 2013, allocates practically unchanged amounts of funding to counties pursuant to a formula based on case quantity, type, staffing needs, operating expenses, special expenditures, and “unique factors.” A recent budget proposal to similarly reallocate vacant but needed judgeships in Alameda and Santa Clara County to San Bernardino and Riverside counties was rejected, as was a bill that would have funded 12 new judgeships throughout the state.

In the recently passed 2016-2017 California Budget, the courts obtained $146.3 million in new funding, some of which was allocated to boost the number of court interpreters and replace case management systems in Orange, Sacramento, San Diego, and Ventura counties.

Regardless of how creative judges and legislators might get, the bottom line is that the funding of the state’s courts need to be substantially increased. The Judicial Branch budget makes up just over 1% of the funds allocated from the state’s General Fund— as Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye stated, “a penny on the dollar is insufficient to provide justice.”

So, what can I do? If you believe the courts should have more funding so that individuals, businesses, and employers have more access to have their cases timely heard and decided, you can contact Governor Jerry Brown here, and find the contact information for your local legislators in the State Assembly and Senate. The Bar Association of San Francisco also has templates and talking points for advocating for improved and adequate funding for California’s courts.

Further information regarding the 2016-17, and prior years’, California Budget can be found here.