Editorial: Local court loses amid raids, bad decisions

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 - 11:53 am | Page 12A
Last Modified: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 - 5:19 pm

In recent years, as they struggled with declining revenue, lawmakers and governors regularly robbed Peter, government programs deemed of lesser importance, to pay Paul, programs with higher priority.

The state judiciary has been a victim of the state's shell game. For the past three years, the Legislature has funded its priorities by redirecting $1.1 billion that was supposed to pay for the replacement and repair of courthouses, including Sacramento's proposed downtown court.

The consequences are coming due.

In 2010 the Legislature and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed off on a public-private partnership to build and finance a new courthouse in Long Beach. The financing arrangement required no upfront payments from the state. The $490 million courthouse will be ready to occupy in September, and that's when state payments come due, $35 million initially, growing to an average of $61 million a year for the next 35 years.

The deal called for the state to appropriate the payments from its general fund. Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget does not include the funding.

The California Judicial Council on Thursday is expected to authorize payments from one of its courthouse construction funds, although little money is left in that fund after repeated legislative raids.

The result is that four other courthouse construction projects will be delayed indefinitely, including Sacramento's. The one bright spot is that an advisory panel has recommended that the Judicial Council allocate $10 million to purchase the site in Sacramento's downtown railyard where the new courthouse would be built.

Dissident judges, critical of what they consider to be bloated spending by California's court bureaucracy, complain that the Long Beach court should not be allowed to push to the front of the line. Their argument is buttressed by the Legislative Analyst's Office, which reported that the unusual public-private partnership financing arrangement inflated the cost of the Long Beach facility by as much as $160 million.

Nonetheless, this was a deal approved by the Legislature. The state is obligated to pay.

The dispute is emblematic of wider problems within the justice system, the judiciary's lack of clout within the Legislature, and the rift between dissident judges and the court bureaucracy headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

In 2011, the chief justice initiated a top-to-bottom review of the court bureaucracy that resulted in 145 Judicial Council directives. She now needs to show how those directives translate into tangible savings and improvements in court operations.

Equally important, judges need to get on the same page. The tension between different factions within the courts does not help the judicial branch make its case in the Legislature or with the governor.

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