When I heard yesterday that California Governor Jerry Brown had vetoed a budget that would have surprised an already stressed court system with an additional $150 million in cuts, my first reaction was relief. That was short lived.
Governor Brown’s veto of the budget, while creating a pause that can be used for debate and reflection, sets the stage for even more crippling cuts to California’s Judiciary.
“California is facing a fiscal crisis and very strong medicine must be taken,” Brown said in a video address that was reported by Reuters, later urging Democrats to cut deeper and Republicans to allow a state vote on the budget.
So, it appears California’s courts have dodged a bullet only to have a bazooka aimed at them. While legislatures say they are dismayed and not sure what the Governor is asking for, it seems pretty clear. He’s asking for much deeper cuts in the next round of the budget that’s sent to him.
So who wins and who doesn’t as the budget pruning shears are brought out. Unfortunately, it may come down to politics. Talk about cutting funding to schools and you’ll see school teachers on television rightly defending their limited resources. Talk about cutting senior care and you’ll see nurses rightly defending those who can’t defend themselves.
The court system, on the other hand, is less sympathetic in the eyes of the public. It’s represented by judges, administrators and lawyers, which just aren’t as compelling on television as the sight of a school librarian saying she can’t afford to buy books for the kids.
If the court system is going to rise up and state its case during the coming budget debate, it needs to make this an issue of equal access to justice for the citizens of California, in my opinion. This is not about the courts as much as it is about California citizens getting equal access to justice. This is not about an IT infrastructure for case management. This is about keeping the doors open and the lines reasnable so an average citizen could actually take care of business at the court and then get back to work in the same morning.
It’s easy for those of us that work in law firms and corporate offices to be insulated from the situation at our already stressed California courts. If you can scoot out of your office at 3:30 in the afternoon to your local court, which I know is hard for many of you, I encourage you look at the number of empty desks and people in line and ask yourself a question: What would happen if they had even less staff?