Cutting into the courts

Budget reductions threaten third branch of government

The author is presiding judge of the Butte County Superior Court.

You probably have seen the stories. The San Joaquin County court will close its Small Claims Division. Placer County will close its courthouse for 12 days this year. San Francisco will lay off 40 percent of its employees and close most civil courts.

California has 58 counties, with a Superior Court in each. Every county court is now funded by the state and, within certain parameters, allowed to administer its own budget.

The reductions to the California courts have been severe and progressive over the past three years. This has led to a 30 percent reduction in baseline funding for fiscal year 2011-12. In fiscal year 2012-13, the trial courts are expecting an additional reduction of 8.4 percent.

Many have asked me what is going to happen to our Butte County court. Fortunately, we have anticipated these cuts and have been planning for them. Among many cost-saving strategies, vacancies have not been filled and our professional and loyal staff has participated in a mandatory-time-off program. When permitted by state law, 100 percent of our judges took a voluntary pay cut. Due to this planning, we are not anticipating at this time any employee layoffs or reduction of court hours.

The judiciary is the third branch of government. Important events take place at the courthouse: Criminal prosecutions occur, estates are administered, marriages dissolved, civil disputes resolved, restraining orders issued. The judiciary takes up less than 3 percent of California’s budget, but these budget cuts will not allow our Butte County court, even with its foresight and frugality, to operate at current levels indefinitely.

It is our hope that the governor and Legislature recognize that they have an obligation to prioritize among the many competing government demands. The judiciary is critical to order and stability in our community. It must not be starved out of existence.

I don’t want to leave on a negative note. Besides our current ability to maintain hours and avoid layoffs (I think it must be in Butte County’s genes to survive even in bad times), planning continues for the new North County Courthouse (funded entirely by civil filing fees and penalty assessments associated with criminal and traffic fines), and for the orderly transition of parole services to the county (as a result of Gov. Brown’s realignment policy).