As a result of the recession, California state revenues declined by $15 billion from 2007 to 2008. While the state’s spending cuts in education made many headlines, you may be unaware of the massive budget cuts to the judicial system, much less the impact it has had on those without the resources to navigate our underfunded courts. At our March club meeting, Mark Simons, Justice, the State of California Court of Appeal and Barry Goode, Presiding Judge, Contra Costa County Superior Court, spoke about how budget cuts have led to justice denied.
Justice Simons explained that the judicial system has seen better days. In 1998, the superior and municipal courts were placed under the supervision of the county superior court presiding judge. The resulting significant efficiencies and additional state funding enabled more judges to be deployed to handle family and juvenile courts in Pittsburg and Richmond. Our county went from one courthouse to approximately five facilities in just two years. However, from 2000 to 2008, things changed. As Justice Simons noted the “quality and availability of justice was declining at this point in time.” The recession was the final straw.
Judge Goode pointed out the current, grim state of the California judicial system. Since 2006, the judicial branch’s portion of the state general fund expenditures dropped from 2%, typical across the country, to 1%. At the low point this was a $1.2 billion reduction before inflation. Judge Goode stated that the 2014-15 state budget proposed by Governor Brown provides a net increase of about $30 million. Unfortunately, the courts need hundreds of millions more.
Judge Goode made a survey of presiding judges across the state and presented a summary. Since 2008, 61 courthouses and 205 courtrooms across the state have been closed. In Contra Costa County, court house staffing has been reduced by 30% and management by 40%. All of these spending cuts have generated delays, prompting hours and even days of waiting as citizens struggle to access court services. Furthermore, access to self-help services, restraining orders, and civil trials has been impacted, severely hampering the courts’ ability to deliver justice.
One result has been the increased use of arbitration to avoid the court system. Employees and consumers may find arbitration is mandatory. If they can afford it, litigants who have civil issues to settle in court can utilize private judges, as allowed by state law. Decisions made by private judges are not necessarily made public.
The California Courts are in danger, and the quality and availability of justice is declining. It is a time for action. The county bar association is providing volunteers to preside over small claims courts. Judges, wanting to remain non-political, are communicating the problem. We as California citizens need to make our concerns known to the legislature. By making this a more visible issue, we can eventually provide a more equitable court system to everyone, regardless of financial resources.
This post was updated on April 9. Bryan Wang, a Miramonte High Junior, contributed.