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Supervisor Janice Rutherford

Justice in the Third Branch

Justice delayed is justice denied.

That’s what Californians are learning as courtrooms and courthouses up and down the state are shuttered due to budget cuts and a history of underfunding our judicial system’s core services.

San Bernardino County suffers from the largest shortage of judges in the state thanks in part to an outdated funding formula that doesn’t take the County’s vast size, population growth or caseload increases into account. According to the most recent judicial needs study conducted by the Judicial Council, San Bernardino County should have 156 judges to handle the workload, yet the state only allots the County 91 positions and only funds 86 of those spots.

The state has closed courtrooms and courthouses in the County, and three more courthouses are on the chopping block. These court closures will force crime victims, witnesses, law enforcement officers, jurors, those seeking child custody orders, and others to drive many additional miles to get to court. In our County of 20,000+ square miles, this is not a problem that can be addressed with mass transit. Meanwhile, the added fuel and overtime costs needed to attend to court matters will further strain the budgets of local and law enforcement agencies and take officers off the street for longer periods of time.

While San Bernardino County is particularly impacted by court closures, it is not alone. Residents in counties throughout California, from large ones such as Los Angeles County to small ones like Kings County, are suffering from the impacts of inadequate court services.

Additional funding would be helpful and an update funding formula is critical, but more money is not the only solution to our state’s judicial woes. The Administrative Office of the Courts is a top-heavy, swollen bureaucracy that has siphoned funding away from our courtrooms where it is needed most and mismanaged a much-needed technology upgrade. Just like school funding should find its way directly to teachers in classrooms, court funding should find its way to local courthouses where judges can use them properly.

Our sluggish justice system is one of the many threats to California’s economic recovery and its long-term economic viability. As businesses leave the state because of high taxes and excessive regulation, business people are also looking at our court system and worrying about the escalating costs of civil lawsuits that drag on for years and years in an overburdened and underfunded civil court system.

Middle-class residents are shouldering much of the financial pain created by our inadequate justice system. While low-income residents qualify for free legal services and waivers on various court fees and some civil litigants choose to pay for private mediation services, middle-class individuals are forking over more money to attorneys as their cases languish in the courts and they are paying outrageous amounts for court fees that have been ramped up over the years to makeup for lost state funding.

Meanwhile, there’s serious concern that people who have turned to the courts to resolve child custody matters, civil disputes, and other issues will decide to take matters into their own hands rather than wait for their cases to work their way through the protracted judicial process. This is a basic threat to public safety that we should not be facing.

We need to have a serious conversation about the third branch of government. This is not just another department of the state. Its ability to function is critical to our form of government and constitutional vitality. It must be respected by the other two branches involved in budgeting.

The answer to our judicial woes lies in a combination of cutting bureaucracy, creating efficiencies, and adequately funding core court services. Our residents deserve to have courts that are open, available, and ready to administer prompt justice. Anything else is unacceptable.