Newsom Slashes $200M From Calif. Courts In New Budget

By Hailey Konnath
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Law360 (June 30, 2020, 10:44 PM EDT) -- California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a state budget Monday that cuts $200 million in funding from the Golden State's court system, part of drastic measures taken to address an estimated $54 billion shortfall in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Notably, the judicial branch's budget sees $176.9 million cut from trial courts and $23.1 million shaved from appellate courts, the California Supreme Court, the Judicial Council and the Habeas Corpus Resource Center.

Newsom said in his budget summary that the judicial branch has had to "radically change" its operations during COVID-19, including extending court deadlines, suspending jury trials, conducting court proceedings remotely, closing courthouses and limiting operations. The governor added that the judicial branch should use this opportunity to improve court operations.

"These efficiency efforts are even more important now to maintain access to justice," he said.

Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement Monday that the budget was not a surprise based on the governor's May proposal.

"As I said at the time, the projected budget deficit is sobering," she said. "I realize our unusual fiscal year may mean more budgetary changes later this summer or even this fall, if the federal government provides some relief in a COVID-19 stimulus bill."

Justice Cantil-Sakauye added, "In the meantime, we in the judicial branch will do our best to serve the public in these unprecedented times of a global pandemic and recession."

The $202.1 billion budget raises taxes, suspends business tax breaks and slashes revenue, reflecting a grim fiscal future for the nation's most populous state. Newsom's revised initial budget projections in May reflected a drop of more than $41.2 billion in state tax revenue as a result of the coronavirus-spurred economic collapse.

"In the face of a global pandemic that has also caused a recession across the world and here in California, our state has passed a budget that is balanced, responsible and protects public safety and health education, and services to Californians facing the greatest hardships," Newsom said in a statement Monday.

The budget includes $4 billion in total funding for the judicial branch for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, according to Newsom's summary. It includes a one-time infusion of $50 million from the state's general fund to help trial courts address backlog.

Over the last three months, the state's 58 trial courts have sought more than 200 emergency orders, many of which delayed proceedings for noncritical matters, the governor's office said.

"Officials expect a surge of case filings as courts begin to safely reopen and expand services curtailed during the pandemic," the office said.

And the governor spared several programs, including legal representation for children and families in the state's welfare system, collaborative courts and self-help programs.

The budget also includes $25 million over two years to modernize court operations and increase online access to court services, "a critical tool as physical distancing continues to be essential to curb the health crisis," the governor's office said.

And it sets aside $10 million for court interpreters and equipment for a remote interpreting program.

"When used appropriately, the program can increase access to qualified interpreters, meet the need for less-widely spoken languages, and reach residents in remote parts of California," the governor's office said. "The budget will include $9.6 million annually in the future to support these efforts."

The ongoing cuts could go away if more federal funding comes through by fall, Newsom said. However, further cuts may also be necessary if revenues are lower than expected after the extended July 15 deadline for tax payments, he said.

--Additional reporting by Abraham Goss, Maria Koklanaris and Dave Simpson. Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.

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