The COVID-19 pandemic’s corrosive effects on California’s public education system are obvious.
The state’s nearly 6 million K-12 students were forced into jerry-rigged remote classes for months and even when schools reopened they have been plagued by political conflicts over whether students should be compelled to wear masks and/or be vaccinated.
These arguments continue but there’s no question that two years of education turmoil have eroded learning and widened the already yawning “achievement gap” separating poor and English-learner students from their more privileged peers.
Public schools, however, are not the only major institution adversely affected by the pandemic and one of the most damaged has been California’s largest-in-the-nation, 1,800-judge court system, which also endured shutdowns and makeshift remote operations.
Courts were already hurting when the pandemic struck, inundated by millions of civil and criminal cases that strained physical and human resources to the breaking point, managed erratically by a central bureaucracy overseen by the Supreme Court’s chief justice, and battered by a fierce internal squabble over money and priorities.
The courts’ problems have not gone unnoticed by Capitol politicians, but in theory, they are an independent branch of government so the governor and the Legislature cannot easily intervene. That said, this year’s version of the annual state budget process could see a change in the Capitol’s traditional hands-off approach to the courts.
Court officials are seeking many millions of dollars to continue a years-long program to replace courthouses because the fees and fines that were expected to repay construction bonds have declined sharply and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget agrees. However, there are indications that the Legislature may insist that the Judicial Council and the Administrative Office of the Courts cede control of the program.
Last month, the Legislature’s budget analyst, Gabe Petek, issued a sharply critical report, advising lawmakers that if the state is to rescue the insolvent construction program and increase operational funds, it should have more say in how the money is spent, rather than allow the court bureaucracy to spend as it wishes.
“Our concern is there is a long-term solvency issue in this construction fund that is not proposed to be addressed,” a senior Petek aide, Anita Lee, told lawmakers in a recent hearing. “The insolvency will likely require significant General Fund resources on an going basis; at least $200 million annually for a decade to pay for the debt service for already completed courthouses.”
Such intervention is not unprecedented because court administrators have gotten themselves into financial hot water in years past, most noticeably by spending a half-billion dollars on what was supposed to be a high-tech, statewide case management system that never worked. The Legislature finally stepped in to cancel the project before even more money went down a rathole.
Centralizing what had been county-level courts into one statewide, state-financed system was the brainchild of former Chief Justice Ron George, who also championed the massive courthouse construction program and the case management system.
The Legislature endorsed the conversion two decades ago but it has been troublesome from the beginning. Local judges complained that the San Francisco-based Administrative Office of the Courts played favorites in doling out money as well as botching the case management system and relying on unrealistic revenue assumptions to finance the construction program.
One group of critical judges even formed their own splinter group, the Alliance of California Judges, to counter the California Judges Association and the rest of the judicial establishment, including the Judicial Council, a policymaking panel headed by the chief justice. The recent legislative moves to exert more influence appear to parallel the Alliance’s complaints.
Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.