Bay Area courts, staggered by deep state budget cuts over the past three years, face another dose of financial woe that could hit Santa Clara and Alameda counties particularly hard.
In a bit of a Robin Hood scenario for California's 58 trial courts, the state's judicial leaders are planning a new formula for distributing more than $1 billion in annual state funding that would take tens of millions of dollars from Northern California courts over the next five years and send it elsewhere.
Coupled with recent statewide cutbacks, the funding shift could further diminish the courts' ability to serve the public, for example causing much longer waits for divorce and child custody cases, as well as for resolving civil feuds between businesses. There likely would be shorter hours to file and obtain court records and fewer resources for treatment-related programs in drug and dependency courts.
Other than Monterey, all of the region's courts would lose money, part of a larger effort to fix historical imbalances in funding California courts that for years have crippled some rural counties and fast-growing counties such as Riverside and San Bernardino.
Under the new formula, Santa Clara County would be the biggest loser in the Bay Area, absorbing more than $10 million in cuts in the next five years, beyond the tens of millions lost in recent years as a result of California's budget troubles. And in Alameda County, which has had layoffs and cut public hours at its courthouses, the move would cost more than $6 million over the same time frame.
"It's hard to swallow," said C. Don Clay, Alameda County's presiding judge.
For courts already searching for ways to deal with Gov. Jerry Brown's $261 million statewide cut to the judiciary in the current budget, the additional pain in the Bay Area could translate into more frustration for the public dealing with local justice systems.
In sprawling San Bernardino County, one of the beneficiaries of the redistribution plan, judges have shut down far-flung courthouses to save money, a move that in some cases forces residents to drive hours for any legal business.
For judges there, the extra money is an overdue life raft, adding more than $13 million to its current $61.3 million by 2017.
"It's the right prescription," said Marsha Slough, San Bernardino's presiding judge.
The state Judicial Council, the policymaking arm of the judiciary, will consider the reforms on Friday. But there appears little doubt the new funding approach will move forward. A committee of judges and court officials crafted the funding shift over the past four months, hoping to address one of the Brown administration's chief complaints about the judiciary's budget -- that it bases local trial court funding on an outdated formula set in 1997, when financial responsibility for courts shifted from counties to the state.
Sacramento Superior Court Judge Laurie Earl, who co-chaired the committee, said the shift will still just be a stopgap if the judiciary does not persuade the governor to restore some of the $1 billion lost in recent years.
"If we reach the end of the five years and don't have any new money, yeah, we're in trouble," Earl said.
As a result of the crisis, Santa Clara County Presiding Judge Brian Walsh supports the new formula, even though it clips his system hard. He is confident his court will avoid the "worst-case scenario" if the state adds money back to the courts. For now, judicial leaders are hoping the governor will restore about $100 million in his May budget revise, which would blunt the impact of the proposed funding changes.
"There are no wealthy courts," Walsh said. "There are underfunded courts. And there are woefully underfunded courts. We have to be part of the solution."
Critics of that solution include Alameda County's Clay, who views the shift as too drastic. "It's a start," he said. "But this is not the solution. You can't just take a few months to reformulate 17 years of (funding)."
The Alliance of California Judges, a group that has targeted the judiciary's spending, contends the Judicial Council is pushing the changes through without enough public comment. "There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat," said Maryanne Gilliard, a Sacramento judge and one of the group's leaders. "We don't know what other options that the committee had."
But Earl said the judiciary is running out of time to deal with its budget crunch.
"It's dictated by reality," she said. "The reality is that we have to do something immediately."
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz