Legislative Analyst's Office

Analysis of the 2001-02 Budget Bill

Judicial (0250)

The California Constitution vests the state's judicial power in the Supreme Court, the courts of appeal, and the trial courts. The Supreme Court, the six courts of appeal, and the Judicial Council of California, which is the administrative body of the judicial system, are entirely state-supported. Under the Trial Court Funding program, the state also provides support (above a fixed county share) for the trial courts. (For more information on the Trial Court Funding program, please see our analysis of the program earlier in this chapter.)

Proposed Budget. The Judicial budget proposes total appropriations of $351 million in 2001-02. This is an increase of $26.3 million, or 6 percent, above estimated current-year expenditures. Total General Fund expenditures are proposed at $298 million, an increase of $21 million, or 7.5 percent, above current-year expenditures.

The increase in the Judicial budget is primarily due to requests for: (1) an augmentation to the Equal Access Fund to provide attorneys for unrepresented indigent litigants ($5 million), (2) Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) services to the trial courts ($3 million), (3) increased operating expenses for the Court-Appointed Counsel program ($2 million), (4) creation of an external fiscal review and audit process for trial courts ($1.9 million), (5) pilot projects to determine the effectiveness of court-based self-help programs for low-income persons ($832,000), (6) expansion of the Court Appointed Special Advocates Grants Project ($675,000), and (7) increased expenditure authority for child support commissioner salaries ($605,000).

Current Budget Display Understates Assistance to the Trial Courts

We recommend that, prior to budget hearings, the Judicial Council report to the Legislature on the amount of local assistance funding provided to the trial courts through the Judicial budget item. We further recommend that the Legislature transfer trial court local assistance funding located in the Judicial budget into the budget item for Trial Court Funding (Item 0450).

As indicated above, the Judicial budget includes support for the Supreme Court, the courts of appeal, the Habeas Resource Center, and the Judicial Council. The AOC, which is located within the Judicial Council, provides administrative support and services for all the courts in California, including the trial courts.

The Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act of 1997, Chapter 850, Statutes of 1997 (AB 233, Escutia and Pringle) shifted primary fiscal responsibility for support of the trial courts from the counties to the state. In addition, the Trial Court Employment Protection and Governance Act of 2000, Chapter 1010, Statutes of 2000 (SB 2140, Burton) established a new trial court personnel system. This statute redesignated county employees in the trial courts as "court employees." The courts are required to develop new procedures for these court employees, including, a uniform classification system, an employment protection system, personnel rules, and eligibility for defined-benefit retirement systems.

The AOC Expands Role in Trial Court Assistance. The process of separating county and court functions has led to a new environment for the trial courts in which many services once provided by the county must be purchased elsewhere, handled in-house, or provided by the AOC. For the most part, the AOC has significantly increased its role in assisting the trial courts. This is reflected in the fact that the Judicial Council budget has increased by nearly 80 percent since 1997-98.

Partly as a result of recent legislation, AOC's budget contains substantial amounts for assistance to the state's trial courts. For example, the budget proposes (1) $2 million and 18.5 positions to implement the Trial Court Employment Protection and Governance Act, (2) $1.9 million to initiate an external fiscal review of the trial courts, (3) $1.5 million in local assistance funding, and (4) $844,000 and five positions to provide direct attorney, consulting, and other administrative services to the courts.

Trial Court Funds Not Displayed in Judicial Budget. Currently, funds for trial courts are appropriated in two separate items of the Budget Bill: the Judicial budget item (Item 0250) and the Trial Court Funding budget item (Item 0450). The funds in Item 0250 are not separately identified or displayed and instead are included within the Judicial Council line item along with other Council expenses. By contrast, the funds for the trial courts are separately identified in Item 0450. This situation makes it difficult for the Legislature to determine the amount of state support being provided to trial courts in the Judicial item and the total amount provided in the Governor's budget. This problem is becoming more significant as AOC continues to acquire and provide additional staff and support for court services no longer being provided by counties.

Analyst's Recommendation. Separating out the trial court funds in Item 0250 would facilitate the Legislature's review of funding levels and trends for trial courts relative to those for other state programs. Accordingly, we recommend that the Judicial Council, prior to budget hearings, report to the Legislature, on the amount of local assistance funding included in the Judicial budget item. We further recommend that this amount be transferred to and scheduled in the Trial Court Funding budget item, or at a minimum, be placed in a local assistance program item within the Judicial budget.

Reporting Requirements Needed for Model Self-Help Pilot Programs

We recommend approval of $832,000 for the Administrative Office of the Courts to begin pilot projects to determine the effectiveness of court-based self-help programs for low-income persons. We further recommend the adoption of supplemental report language that directs the Judicial Council to report the results of the pilot projects upon their completion.

Proposal. The budget requests $832,000 to establish pilot projects to determine the effectiveness of five different models of court-based self-help programs. The purpose of these programs is to assist low-income persons in having their court cases resolved.

Background. A growing number of unrepresented litigants are presenting their own civil cases in courts throughout the state. Currently, over one half of the parents seeking custody and visitation services from the courts act as their own attorneys, and over 62 percent of parents with child support problems act on their own behalf.

Unrepresented litigants require more time from judicial officers and court clerks to process papers and explain procedures. The State Bar estimates that it would take over $360 million per year to provide legal representation for persons below the poverty line. The courts have been seeking other, less expensive, strategies to assist unrepresented litigants so that the courts can make informed decisions and ensure more efficient use of staff time.

Recommendation. We recommend approval of $832,000 to fund the self-help pilot projects in order to identify effective ways of providing assistance to unrepresented low-income litigants. We also recommend adoption of the following supplemental report language requiring the Judicial Council to report the results of its pilot projects to the Legislature.

The Judicial Council shall report to the Chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and the chairs of the Legislature's fiscal committees on March 1, 2005 on the efficiency and effectiveness of the Model Self-Help Pilot Programs in assisting unrepresented litigants.

Return to Criminal Justice Table of Contents, 2001-02 Budget Analysis