California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday unveiled a proposed $227.2 billion budget for the state’s 2021-2022 fiscal year with a proposed $381.1 million in new funding for its court system, including investments to support the judicial branch’s essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, in the wake of the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, California’s court system took $200 million in budget cuts, leading courts to furlough employees, reduce employee compensation, and slash operating costs.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called the governor’s new proposed budget “welcome news” for the state’s judicial branch.
“It is careful and cautious, but also reflects his concern for those trying to access our court system during a pandemic,” Cantil-Sakauye said of the budget proposal in a statement.
The budget sets aside a proposed $4.1 billion in total funding for California’s courts, $2.2 billion of which would go to trial court operations. The proposal’s summary notes that the state’s judicial branch has had to “radically change its operations to protect the public from the spread of COVID-19 while also maintaining access to justice,” taking actions such as “extending court deadlines, suspending jury trials, using technology to conduct proceedings remotely, and suspending evictions and foreclosures.”
“These actions have resulted in more limited operations while the courts modified processes and procedures to adapt to the pandemic, and in some instances, resulted in periods of courtroom or courthouse closures,” the summary states.
To maintain more timely operations, the proposal includes a plan to create a new Pandemic Early Disposition Calendar Program designed to build on a program Cantil-Sakauye launched last month to alleviate the state’s backlog of criminal cases. The new program may include diversion and dismissal of cases for certain criminal defendants who don’t have new charges or violations. According to the proposal, Newsom’s administration will work to develop the program with the California Judicial Council and the state Legislature.
Newsom’s budget also proposes $19.1 million for trial courts to continue providing self-help services for unrepresented litigants, and $12.3 million — increasing to $58.4 million by the 2024-2025 fiscal year — to expand the use of an online tool through which low-income Californians can ask to have fines and fees from infractions reduced according to their ability to pay. The tool currently applies only to traffic infractions, but the new budget proposes its expansion statewide to incorporate non-traffic infractions.
In addition, the proposal includes $11.7 million in funding for trial courts to process an anticipated increase in unlawful detainer and small claims filings arising from AB 3088, a bill the governor signed last year to provide pandemic-related relief to tenants and landlords. That legislation provided that tenants couldn’t be evicted as a result of rent owed due to COVID-19-related hardships, but tenants still owe landlords the unpaid rent, which landlords may begin to recover on March 1.
The budget also proposes $2.1 billion over the next five years to fund the construction of new courthouses, including funding for 14 replacement and renovation projects on a Judicial Council-approved priority list.
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